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January/February 2003
 
   
 

Closing the Circle:
Vermont Gov. Howard Dean and His MIA Brother

BY JIM BELSHAW


Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean has not yet found his brother, Charles, missing for 28 years and reported to have been executed in 1974 in Laos. But the New England Democrat said he found at least some measure of peace after standing near the Vietnam border in the Laotian rice paddy where he believes his brother is buried. Like so many others searching for answers about loved ones who never came home from Southeast Asia, Dean said that while the information may be far from complete, what he found after so long brought him one step nearer to closing the circle.

Charles Dean, then 24, was traveling around the world when he and an Australian friend, Neil Sharman, were detained on Sept. 4, 1974, by the Pathet Lao, a communist nationalist group opposed to the U.S.-supported government of Laos in the 1960s and 1970s. Held in a prison camp for more than three months, the men are believed to have been executed on Dec. 14 while being taken to Vietnam.

In news reports prior to his departure for Laos, Gov. Dean said he was unsure of whether the Laotians or the Vietnamese executed his brother. The Pathet Lao apparently considered Charles Dean and Neil Sharman spies because they were carrying cameras. At the time of their capture, the American and Australian governments vehemently protested the detention, saying the men were only tourists.

Using information largely gathered from Lao informants, the American and Lao governments have worked to locate sites where missing Americans might be buried or where aircraft went down. The effort to recover the bodies of Dean and Sharman is being coordinated by the Pentagon's Joint Task Force-Full Accounting (JTF-FA) detachment, which was created over ten years ago to search for MIAs and their remains.

The cooperative effort between the American and Lao governments surprised and pleased Gov. Dean, although information often is difficult to obtain because the American war effort was conducted in secret.

In late 2000, the JTF-FA, working primarily with Lao informants who may have been present either at the prison camp or the executions, identified a remote site on the Laos-Vietnam border as the likely burial place of the men.

"There were a lot of surprises, and the thing I was most surprised about and pleased about was how hard the government is working to recover remains," Dean said. "One of the reasons I was invited to go over there was because it's not so common for American dignitaries to go, and it was thought I could be of some assistance in convincing the Laotians that we're really serious about this. We had a sort of mini-state dinner, and I was able to speak to the foreign minister and others. It was helpful."

Dean visited five sites under investigation by the JTF-FA and was able to speak with Lao witnesses who had seen his brother's body. Although a civilian, Dean's brother is considered by the U.S. government to have been a prisoner of war.

"They have on-site anthropologists and the sites were like archaeological digs," Dean said. "The teams were putting in enormous efforts to recover a relatively small amount of remains after 30 years. I was very impressed that the government was willing to mount an effort like that."

Dean found himself learning lessons about the Vietnam War that were difficult to appreciate from his vantage point thousands of miles away. Dean said he had not realized how heavily Laos had been bombed during the war until he saw the bomb craters and the substantial numbers of unexploded ordnance still along the Vietnam-Laos border.

He said the geography and topography of Southeast Asia gave him insight to how difficult the challenges were of fighting in Vietnam and other countries in the region.

He learned lessons about the physics of warfare, too.

"One thing I don't think a civilian realizes is what happens when a jet goes into the ground at 350 miles an hour and what it does to everybody inside," he said.

Dean participated in some of the digging and screening for remains and equipment in other sites being investigated by JTF-FA. He called the effort a "huge endeavor."

The material, he said, was broken up into incredibly small pieces by the impact and scattered over wide areas. Then there has been an enormous amount of time for trees and jungle to grow up, all of which had to be removed before excavation could begin. Keeping an eye out for what a tooth looks like after it's been in the soil for 30 years is extremely difficult. I was very encouraged by our government and our armed forces."

The lessons learned about the reality of conditions during the war and the environment in which the JTF-FA personnel must work today caused Dean emphatically to condemn those who give families of the missing false hope.

"The experience gave me a fair amount of disgust for politicians who give false hope to POW-MIA families that some guys are still alive over there," he said. "It makes you kind of sick when you get over there and see what's really going on and how tough it is and how hard the troops are working to bring home even the smallest of remains."

No decision has been made whether excavation will be done on Charles Dean's presumed burial site, a possibility Dean accepts.

He said the long journey to Laos brought back the initial pain of his brother's disappearance, but he is certain his family is glad he made the trip. He has no doubts about its value.

"I think people want some closure," he said. "Closure is very hard to achieve when you don't know what happened and when you don't have a body or anything like that. I think the United States government has bent over backwards to try to give POW-MIA families that sense of closure when it can. It's conceivable that if they dig at my brother's site, they may not come up with anything. If that's what happens, that's what happens. When I went back home, I showed the pictures of the site to my mother and my brothers. Clearly, this kind of thing isn't easy, but they felt a certain amount of closure."

   

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