October 2000/November 2000
VVA’s Veterans Initiative: Maintaining the Connection
By Jim Belshaw
Five years ago, Geoffrey Steiner, a former Marine from Minnesota,
responded to the Veterans Initiative by submitting a map he hoped would
lead to the recovery of Vietnamese MIA remains near Cam Lo, just off
central Vietnam's Highway Nine. The hopes were not realized. Vietnamese
teams made preliminary excavations that found nothing.
Last June, Steiner drew another map in anticipation of visiting Vietnam
himself. With the help of VVA’s Veterans Initiative, arrangements were
made for Steiner to go to the Cam Lo site.
New excavations were begun. Remains were discovered. Steiner predicts
more will be found.
"It's always been in the back of my mind," he said. "I
close my eyes, and I can see [the battle site]. I can smell it. I remember
seeing a guy laying there--a dead NVA--who had a wedding band on his
finger, and it made it very personal for me. So when I heard about the
Veterans Initiative, my main concern was sending in the map and showing
where I was and what I knew in the hope that it would encourage the
Vietnamese to help us find our guys."
VVA Vice President Tom Corey said the experience reflected the aims of
the Veterans Initiative and provided evidence of its continued viability.
"This is how we started the Initiative," Corey said. "We
took witnesses back with us when we could--people who had information--and
it worked. Since the 1996 trips, we've done it mostly with information
sent in by veterans, such as maps and other documents. They had good
results, as was reported to us by the Ministry of Defense on a trip this
Corey said Vietnamese officials recorded the recovery of more than 800
sets of remains based on information provided by veterans to VVA.
Begun in 1993, the Veterans Initiative has tried to help the Vietnamese
account for their MIAs in the hope that the effort would encourage Vietnam
to cooperate with the United States in its efforts for the fullest
possible accounting of American MIAs.
Corey said the effort is succeeding.
"The Vietnamese have been very cooperative with us," he said.
"Each time we return, more Vietnamese witnesses come forward. They're
good witnesses, and the Joint Task Force-Full Accounting has gotten
results from them in the search for American remains."
Geoffrey Steiner, an 18-year-old Marine rifleman in 1968, had contacted
VVA before his trip to Vietnam in June. He wanted to know if VVA would
send someone to accompany him. When this proved impossible, Steiner was
put in contact with Veterans Initiative team member Bill Duker.
"Everything went well when he got there," Duker said.
"The Vietnamese had excavated what I call `pilot holes,' but hadn't
found anything. Geoff showed them where to dig. He had, in fact, put
together a more accurate map. With him there on site to direct them, they
dug in different places and found remains."
While the Vietnamese remain skeptical of Steiner's estimate, he
maintains there could be as many as six hundred sets of remains in the
area, although they would be scattered because of deterioration and the
many air strikes called in on the day of the battle.
In a Reuters news dispatch from Cam Lo, Steiner said that after the
battle, in which many Vietnamese died in spider holes following the air
strikes, the Marines used a tank to push dirt over the many bodies that
lay in the holes.
Regardless of differences on numbers, Duker found Steiner's experience
"It's another indication that the Initiative is working," he
said. "When we get good information, we can do our own research and
we can match these things up, get good maps, and coordinate the hands-on
maps with military maps. That's how we have success. It validates
everything we said we would do with the Initiative."
When a Veterans Initiative delegation traveled to Vietnam last spring,
Vietnamese officials provided a list of documents submitted through the
Veterans Initiative and annotated the list to show which documents had
produced results and which had not.
The Vietnamese asked if American veterans might be found who would be
willing to return to Vietnam to act as witnesses and guides. Corey told
the Vietnamese that the request would go out to the VVA membership.
"Extending this program and continuing to assist the Vietnamese
with witnesses from our side is beneficial for all of us," Corey
said. "If there are people out there with information that eventually
could help American families with missing loved ones, and there are
Vietnamese mothers and fathers still waiting for information on sons and
daughters, then we should make every effort to find them."
Corey said VVA has built a good relationship with Vietnamese veterans
in the years since the Veterans Initiative began.
"Geoff is one story," Corey said. "There are more Geoff
Steiners out there. The Veterans Initiative needs to move forward. We've
learned so much over the years in our meetings with Vietnamese veterans.
We were all doing our jobs in the war. We were trying to survive and go
home to our families. Now we have another job to do--helping those who
didn't go home to get back, and we're doing it veteran to veteran, and
it's working. We need to keep moving forward on behalf of the families on
Geoff Steiner said his actions amounted to a "small thing I could
"If you don't forgive, you'll never be healed," he said.
"I wanted this to be seen as forgiveness. I know a mother whose son
is missing and just to hear that anguish because they don't know--well, if
I could help someone end that anguish, I wanted to."