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
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.
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
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
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