A publication of Vietnam Veterans of America, Inc. ®
An organization chartered by the U.S. Congress

December 2000/January 2001

A Presidential Vietnam Visit:

George Duggins On The Historic Trip

When President Clinton made his historic three-day visit to Vietnam in November--the first by a U.S. chief of state since President Nixon visited the troops in 1969--only one veterans service organization was invited to be part of the journey: Vietnam Veterans of America. VVA President George C. Duggins was part of the American presidential party. What follows are Dugginsí reflections on his latest mission to Vietnam.

When it was announced that the President was going to Vietnam, it was really a trade mission until the veteransí community got involved and said there were issues that still needed to be addressed. So we had some meetings, and the National Security Council, the Department of Veterans Affairs, and the veterans' community expressed their thoughts on the trip and what should take place.

We asked that veteran representation be sent along with the President. The consensus of the group was that, because of the work we have done, VVA should represent the veterans community. That's how we got on the trip. I think we got final confirmation about a week before the trip that we were going. Our hopes were high, but that's how we came about being on the trip.

We recognized that every president from Nixon to Clinton has said that one of the nation's highest priorities was to resolve the POW/MIA issue, but they've always said it from Pennsylvania Avenue. None of them have ever said it from Hanoi. So we had an opportunity for our President to say it in Hanoi. That's why VVA, we felt, should be there to make certain that our missing were cared for.

In Washington before the trip, we had some time with the President where we were asked our advice on issues, such as whether he should visit a crash site and what he should say about POW/MIAs. We gave our input, and it was listened to.

Because VVA was part of this trip, we were able to put our issues forward and make sure that those issues and concerns were addressed.

We wanted, for example, to put Agent Orange on the table. We have been pushing for research in Vietnam that would get answers about Agent Orangeís effects on American veterans and Vietnamese prople.

Arrival

We flew into Hanoi around 8:30 at night, and we were on a flight called the Special Air Mission (a converted 757). We were met by dignitaries and motorcaded to the hotel. There were many people lined up on the streets.

When I traveled with the presidential delegation in 1994, we were hardly noticed. But knowing that the U.S. President was coming with his delegations, people just lined up to get a view. It was fantastic. People were lined six and seven deep, and this was fairly late at night. I felt very welcome. In many ways, the Vietnamese have gotten over the war. They have a very young population; 60 percent of their people are under the age of 40. They don't remember the war as we remember the war. They have mostly moved on with their lives, and they were very excited that the president and other Americans were coming into their country.

 

The next day ran from 6 o'clock in the morning with breakfast until 11 o'clock at night. The President got in about 11:30 that night, so the following day was the official welcoming at the Presidential Palace. We were motorcaded to the palace where we were greeted by Vietnamese dignitaries, including their president and Ambassador Le Van Bang. They had a military honor guard, and the band played a surprisingly good rendition of our national anthem.

 

The American flag was present and flying in Hanoi. I can tell you without equivocation that the American flag was not flown under any other flag; it was equal to any flag that we saw. Rumors about the American flag flying under some other flag are totally false. Everywhere we went the American flag was parallel with the Vietnamese flag.

 

In his opening remarks to the Vietnamese people, President Clinton said there were still some issues unfinished from the war, and he said that America's highest priority remains its missing and unaccounted for. Wherever he addressed people this came up: The POW/MIA issue is still one of America's highest priorities, and it had to be resolved for better relations to develop between the two countries. And I think the Vietnamese saw the results from the efforts they had made so far. The Vietnamese, in turn, promised to continue to do more to resolve the problem with unilateral action on their part and by assisting JTF-FA. They pledged, too, to help get Laos into the picture to fully cooperate.

 

The President gave the Vietnamese documents from our archives that describe battle actions. He promised that more would be forthcoming. Later on, at a meeting with the Vietnamese Veterans Association, we presented seven hundred names of Vietnamese who died in captivity or in American hospitals. This was a separate set of documents.Wherever we went, Vietnam Veterans of America was applauded for our efforts to resolve the question of the missing in Vietnam. The praises that were given to us--and especially to VVAís Veterans Initiative--by the Vietnamese people, the Veterans Association of Vietnam, and the Vietnamese Office for Seeking Missing Persons (VNOSMP) were unbelievable.

When I announced that I was president of VVA, they were very glad to meet the president of VVA and they mentioned Tom Coreyís work. They really had praises for our organization. They recognized Tom Corey for the work he has done in leading delegations to Vietnam. Of all the (VSOs), we alone are cited for our work. All of the praise went to VVA. Our efforts--through the Veterans Initiative--have fostered the spirit of cooperation between our two countries.

VVA has always been a major player in the questions that linger from the war. And I think we've been players in that arena for a long time, and the other VSOs recognize it.

 

We had a dinner and reception at the ambassadorís house in Hanoi. Pete Peterson praised the work that VVA was doing in Vietnam. Vietnam is changing. A lot of American businesses are there, and they are bringing jobs and bringing a new way of life to the people. I think that these people are slowly but surely moving toward a dollar-based economy. I see capitalism moving in. As usual, the old hard-liners resist, but the younger people see a need for it. The hard-liners are fading away. I guess age catches up with everybody. I think the key there is which way the military goes.

 

We were not there to tell the Vietnamese how to run their government or what to do about human rights. Nonetheless, if you want to come into the real world, these are problems you have to address. But I think the moderates recognize this. In Hanoi we went to the Presidential Palace, and we went to the famous Hanoi Hilton prison. We were allowed to shop and mingle with the people. When the people recognized that we were Americans, they immediately wanted to start conversations, I guess to practice their English. I found no animosity.

 

Saigon hasn't really changed much since the war. The regime tolerates it because a lot of business, a lot of dollars, are generated there. We also had a dinner and reception at the ambassador's house. Pete Peterson praised the work that VVA was doing in Vietnam.

We also had meetings in Saigon with the American Chamber of Commerce. I had an opportunity to talk to some of the members. I told them that a problem that some veterans have is that businesses look to make a profit and have no concerns with veterans issues. The Chamber of Commerce informed me that veterans had never expressed their issues, so they don't know what our issues are.

 

I was invited to go along with the President to the crash site where Captain Evertís plane was shot down. The crash remains were being excavated and it was very touching. His sons, Dan and Dave Evert, were there. Americans GIs, who volunteer for this duty and honor, worked alongside the Vietnamese to excavate this site.

The Evert boys thanked the Vietnamese. They had no hard feelings against the Vietnamese for their father's death. They understood that things like this happen in war. The first day they went out by themselves and they helped excavate the site. The next day they came out for a photo op with the President. The first family and the President were very touched by what they saw going on. They saw, too, how painstaking it is to excavate a site.

 

It was very emotional for everybody. It was emotional for me also to see these boys returning to their father's crash site. Itís not just that you go to a site and dig. Archeologists are called in, you get the area marked off, and then you dig it off a square foot at a time. Itís very time consuming, and itís very tedious work

.

Later during the trip, we attended a repatriation ceremony in Tan San Nhut Airport. It was held the night that we were preparing to leave. Three sets of remains were returned to CILHI for identification. To see the remains entering American planes and flying back to American soil to be identified would make the strongest veteran weep. These brothers were coming home. There was some rumor that the remains were flown directly to the United States, but that was false. They were sent to CILHI and went through the regular identification channels. The President, the ambassador, the DPMO chief, and the rest of the dignitaries were lined up on the tarmac as the remains were returned to the plane.

We asked that we be included in escorting the remains up to the plane, but due to security concerns that wasn't allowed. But just to be out there was very touching.

I traveled home on Air Force One. I got bumped up a flight. After flying on Air Force One, there's nothing US Air can do for me.

It was a distinct pleasure to fly on Air Force One, accompanying the first family, the Secretary of Veteran Affairs, and the Secretary of Commerce back to the United States. I think it was a grand day for VVA to be asked to fly back on Air Force One.

The trip showed that VVA is a true player and a force in the relationship between the two countries. The President has come and gone, but VVA is still here. And we'll still be there until our mission is accomplished. I wish that we could take the whole membership to witness the relationship that has developed and the work that we are doing. Vietnam is not a war, it's a country, and we have to deal with them as a country. I think if we do that we will go a long way in healing a lot of American veterans.

I think it was an historic trip, no matter how you look at it. I think you will see additional presidents going to Vietnam.

VVA needs to stay on its course. If we walk away now, we have failed the 58,000 people whose names are on The Wall. Everyone tells us that VVA has made a difference. VVA has improved the Oral History Program, and most of the work on recovery of unaccounted Americans is done through oral history of Vietnamese witnesses. The idea is to get people to remember what happened at a certain given time regarding our unaccounted Americans.

   

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