updated 11/13/2013 AT 2:00 PM ET
•originally published 11/14/2013 AT 8:30 PM ET
Bao Tran still remembers an old man shuffling onto the bridge to hand him a tiny bundle tucked into a straw hat.
It was May 1972 and Tran was in the South Vietnamese Army fighting alongside the Americans. His company was about to blow up the bridge outside Quang Tri.
“The man said the baby was trying to nurse on its dead mother,” Tran, now 65, recalls.
He carried the baby in that hat for 60 miles – “I was in full combat gear, with explosions all around,” he says – to an orphanage, where he left her with the name he’d planned for his own daughter someday: Ngoc Bich.
“That is what I named this baby,” he tells PEOPLE. “Precious Pearl.”
That would have been the last time Tran saw the girl he thought of as “my con gai, my daughter” but for an astonishing coincidence that led to their reunion this year.
Finding Each Other
“I hoped she was okay,” he says. She was.
Adopted by a Wisconsin couple who renamed her Kimberly Mitchell, she grew up on a farm, graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy, rose to Lt. Commander and now runs the Washington, D.C., non-profit Dixon Center for veterans.
“I’d always wondered,” says Mitchell, “was it out of love I was put in the orphanage?”
After stumbling upon information on the orphanage’s new location, Mitchell visited while on a 40th-birthday trip to Vietnam in 2011.
A U.S.-based Vietnamese-language newspaper wrote about her trip, mentioning the name on Mitchell’s first passport as a baby: Precious Pearl.
Tran had since emigrated to the U.S. A worker of odd jobs in Albuquerque, he happened to read that paper.
“I knew it had to be the girl!” he says. He searched Mitchell out to reassure her that “she wasn’t abandoned; she was rescued.”
The pair met in New Mexico on March 29 and embraced like lost relatives.
“I was hugging this man, thinking, ‘Why would he want to save me? ‘” she says. “He must have compassion and love in him that is beyond any comprehension.”
Like Family Now
Mitchell knows that she was loved from the start; that her biological mother died with her baby in her arms.
“I was obviously important to her,” Mitchell says.
And Tran’s story of the war now has meaning.
“I was meant to find Precious Pearl that day,” he says. “Finding her again has brought peace to my life.”
For more details and photos, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday.
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