There is no deep or long standing history between David Fleming and Pham Van Tuyen in Robert Olen Butler's novel On Distant Ground. David Fleming first encounters Pham Van Tuyen when the Viet Cong prisoner is in the midst of a long and horrible imprisonment having endured unspeakable interrogations, a failed escape attempt and removal to a remote prison on Con Son Island. The mystery to both Fleming and Tuyen is why Fleming risks his military career, American honor, and life to commandeer a jeep and helicopter to give Tuyen an escape from captivity.
Fleming only understands as an impulse inspired by Tuyen's great humanity as expressed by his reactions to his brutal imprisonment. Tuyen can only understand it in terms of what his old and traditional father might say: "My father would say that you are clearly not a human being but a spirit creature ready to reshape itself at any moment into a tree or a rock or a tiger."