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January / February 2008

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The 2007 Veterans Initiative Trip to Vietnam And Laos
Binding Trust To Progress

BY GARY JONES AND BILL DUKER
The latest Veterans Initiative trip to Vietnam and Laos took place in October and November 2007. The team members were VVA Vice President Jack Devine; Gary Jones, the chair of VVA’s POW/MIA Committee; Bill Duker, the director of the committee’s Veterans Initiative Program; and Bob Maras, the former chair of VVA’s Veterans Initiative Task Force.

We took with us items that VVA members had sent to the national office. We took an NVA uniform with associated field gear, two color photos of Viet Cong prisoners in the Dong Tam area, and a grave site location in the Cam Lo area said to contain 158 bodies. We also brought from VVA members the specifications and map of a grave site in Dak To and some confiscated Vietnam War documents in Vietnamese.

This exceptionally well-documented information could account for 165 Vietnamese KIAs and three POWs. With this latest group of materials, we now have provided information on a potential total of 9,439 KIAs and 1,092 POWs to our counterparts, the Vietnamese Veterans Association.

Before we left, we paid a visit to the DoD’s POW/MIA Office in the Pentagon, where we received an excellent briefing on what was happening in Vietnam. From this briefing we took talking points and insights with us that proved very useful. At every opportunity we brought up the issue of support from both sides in achieving our mission of the fullest possible accounting for MIAs. It is not taboo to mention POWs around the Vietnamese. A priority at all our meetings is a discussion of those Last Known Alive (LKA).

It is our impression that the Vietnamese, particularly on the veteran and local levels, fully intend to do whatever they can to help us identify American MIA remains. This is good news. The Vietnamese did, in fact, provide information to us about possible American MIAs, which we have forwarded to the Pentagon’s Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command (JPAC) for investigation.

We arrived in Hanoi on October 11, and the first order of business was to recuperate from thirty hours of travel and to organize our itinerary for the mission. Our first stop was with our sponsors, the Vietnam Union of Friendship Organizations/Vietnam-USA Society.

Since VVA began the VI program in 1994, there has been an evolution in the attitude on all sides from entitlement to humanitarian and now to what can only be called spiritual. That is reflected in the relationship between the American veterans and the country of Vietnam. Our relationship with them is now founded more on trust and less on economics. This gives the Veterans Initiative an advantage that other groups do not have. We found this to be true throughout our trip-from the northern reaches of Vietnam to the Delta. Every group of veterans and government officials we met assured us that they would encourage cooperation in our effort to recover missing American soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines.

At each stop we were impressed by the rapidity and depth of change in Vietnam. The people and the government are a study in the rapid development of international relations. Our requests to them have been positively received and not ignored. We are confident that a lot of what’s behind this is the trust we have built as a veterans’ organization in our mission to help families, both American and Vietnamese.

The American Embassy and JPAC report similar observations. The working relationship between the Americans and Vietnamese on this and many issues improves every year. Bob Maras’s work with Bill Nelson, the Vietnam veteran who is the head of HBO, is one example. We have proposed that HBO develop a documentary on the Veterans Initiative and its impact on the growing positive relationship between our governments. At each stop, Jack Devine and Bob Maras brought up the proposed documentary, and it met with promises from the Vietnamese to participate and cooperate.

In Hanoi, we visited the Ministry of Defense. We were invited to go to a museum and school on ordinance disposal. In the course of locating, investigating, and recovering remains, a very serious threat is unexploded ordinance (UXO), which has saturated the country from the French wars, World War II, and the American war. Children are particularly vulnerable.

This became a talking point for us at all stops. The Vietnamese UXO people have a dire need for education, location, and safety equipment. They also would welcome information from American veterans on UXO location or placement.

As we progressed into the I Corps area and south, we were struck by how strongly people responded to our interest in the subject. We will bring the unexploded ordinance issue to the VVA membership. While this issue carries with it tremendous humanitarian value for the children and farmers of the country, it also carries a serious threat for American personnel in the MIA recovery operations and has caused delays in several efforts, including at Kham Duc.

Another change for us was that on this trip we worked less with local provincial governments and much more with officials from local Foreign Affairs departments. This may have been due to recent flood and typhoon needs in the communities. It was a good thing, though, in that the Foreign Affairs people were often very much in tune with the efforts we were making to develop the relationships we have with our Vietnamese veteran counterparts.

In Laos, we found that developments on all levels are not as far along as those in Vietnam. Still, there has been great progress and all signs are that it will continue. There is some indication that the Lao are beginning to recognize us, if not completely trust us yet. This is similar to what has happened in Vietnam. JPAC reports that the Lao have been supportive from the beginning and that cooperation between the Laotian government and JPAC is improving.

The personnel manning the American embassies in both countries are exceptional. We were treated with great skill and respect, and the briefings were on target and very useful. They listened carefully to the experiences we had as we moved around Vietnam and Laos. The JPAC personnel are our brothers and sisters, of course, and are extraordinarily committed to this mission. It is a true honor for VVA to be associated with them, and they deserve all the assistance we can provide.

The team would like to thank the Veterans Association in Laos, which is considering its own losses and how to deal with them. Unfortunately, they are poorly prepared to work on recovery problems. We had no information on Laotian MIAs to give them. However, they have been very cooperative in working with JPAC in the field to try to locate American losses.

The veterans and people of Vietnam we have worked with since 1991 are sincerely and deeply appreciative of our efforts to help them with accounting for their lost warriors. In response to our efforts, they have seriously pursued a policy of helping us find ours.

There is work to be done. We need more access to their records, and we have communicated that to them. Given the progress made to date due to VVA’s efforts, we believe that there is a good chance that cooperation will continue to improve, which will yield concrete results in the field.

 

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