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From Vietnam to video battlefield, via Buffalo

Cyber-Tran stars in megahit game


Published:January 2, 2011, 12:00 AM

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Updated: January 2, 2011, 6:32 AM

Thom Tran came to Cheektowaga from Vietnam with his family 30 years ago, when he was just a year old.

He’s packed a lot into those three decades.

He fought in Iraq, graduated from Buffalo State College and did the traffic on local radio stations before heading to Los Angeles to try his hand at comedy.

Now Tran has ended up inside one of the hottest-selling video games of all time.

He’s the model for several characters in “Call of Duty: Black Ops,” and he shows up between NBA star Kobe Bryant and late-night talker Jimmy Kimmel in a TV ad for the game.

“It’s a huge geek moment,” Tran said of the experience of playing himself in a video game.

Friends and colleagues say they’re tickled to see Tran make himself a small part of this pop-cultural phenomenon.

They say he was ambitious and energetic even as an Army Reservist and college student, and they’re not surprised he’s done so much in a life that hasn’t traveled a straight line.

“I think he’s following the American dream,” said Jim Otwell, a retired lieutenant colonel with the Army Reserve who served with Tran in Iraq. “What a great story.”

Tran’s story begins in Vietnam, where his father and grandfather served in the military.

His father, Tri Tran, was a South Vietnamese Air Force pilot who trained with the U. S. Air Force and later became a prisoner of war after Saigon fell to the Communist North.

In 1980, Tran, his father, his mother, Tam Nguyen, and an older brother and sister were able to escape Vietnam and come to this country when St. Aloysius Gonzaga Church in Cheektowaga sponsored them.

Tran, who lost his mother in March, also has a younger sister born in this country.

He graduated from Maryvale High School and signed up for the Army Reserve one year after starting college.

Gabe DiMaio had Tran as a student at Buffalo State, and remembers being impressed with Tran’s focus as he took classes while his Reserve unit prepared to head to Iraq.

“He was always gung ho, he was always motivated, but he didn’t do it in a way that put people off. It was a positive energy he gave off,” said Di- Maio, program director for WNED 94.5-FM.

Tran was a staff sergeant with the 402nd Civil Affairs Battalion, then based in the Town of Tonawanda, and his team deployed to Iraq from December 2002 until January 2004.

He was on a reconnaissance mission in a Humvee during his first week in Iraq when they drove into a firefight.

Tran bent down in his seat to reach for his colonel’s pistol when a bullet grazed him in the back of the head.

“I got into Iraq on Sunday, and I got shot on Thursday,” said Tran, now 31 and a resident of North Hollywood.

He was wearing a soft cap, not a helmet, and a doctor told him that the movement of reaching for the pistol likely saved his life. He was stapled up and demanded he be allowed to return to action the next day.

After his unit returned home, he went back to Buffalo State and finished his degree in spring 2004. He also returned to doing traffic reports through Metro Networks for WBEN 930-AM and other stations.

Tran always had more than one job going at the same time, working regularly as a disc jockey at strip clubs, bars, weddings and other special events.

“I kind of became the bar mitzvah king of Buffalo for a while,” Tran quipped.

But he began to think more and more about leaving Buffalo for Southern California to try to make it as a stand-up comic, and finally set out in 2008.

In Los Angeles, he launched his career as a comic and sometime actor and found a job with a company, Dagger Media Group, that finds work for ex-military types as consultants and actors.

About a year ago, Dagger Media Group hired out Tran and other employees as consultants to the company designing “Black Ops,” the latest edition in the popular “Call of Duty” series.

In “Black Ops,” which reached $1 billion in sales last month, gamers can play special-forces operatives who try to complete missions set during the Cold War.

Initially, Tran served as a weapons and costumes specialist.

Later, because of his heritage, designers asked him to model all of the uniforms the North and South Vietnamese soldiers would wear in the portion of the game set in Vietnam.

After they shot pictures and a 3-D scan of Tran’s head over many months, they used this material to create six enemy-soldier characters in the game.

These replica Trans appear in a mission that requires the user to try to hold an American bunker against an onslaught of North Vietnamese soldiers.

“There are 1,000 little me’s charging over a hill — a weird, Asian ‘Braveheart,’ ” said Tran, an enthusiastic gamer himself.

Also, gamers using the multi-player version of “Black Ops” can choose to play a character modeled after Tran.

The director hired to shoot the “Black Ops” TV commercial had worked with Tran and other Dagger Media Group employees before, so he hired them again for the commercial.

The ad, which has the theme “There’s a Soldier in All of Us,” was filmed in mid-October at a former mine in the desert three hours outside Los Angeles.

Bryant, the Lakers star, showed up in a limo—“He was so cool,” Tran said — but Tran didn’t get to meet Kimmel because he shot his scenes another day.

In the ad, Tran fires a shotgun marked with the phrase “SSG Tran” as he moves through the desert battlefield.

“Hands down, most fun I’ve ever had on a movie set,” he said.

The ad debuted Nov. 7, two days before the game’s release.

“As soon as it premiered, my friends from Buffalo were blowing up my cell phone” with text messages and calls, Tran said.

Tran also appeared, in a lumberjack outfit, with seven other models on “Black Ops” ads on billboards and subway cars in New York City.

Friends like Otwell and Di- Maio said they’re proud of Tran, who takes his modest fame in stride.

Tran returns to Buffalo often, and he performed at a couple of dozen combat outposts on a USO tour in Iraq in 2008.

As a noncommissioned officer, Tran felt a responsibility to take care of his soldiers, but he can’t fight alongside them anymore.

“Comedy is what helped me, so if I can help them forget where they are for an hour, then I feel like I’m still doing my job taking care of soldiers,” he said.



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