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
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
"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."
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
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."