The Official Voice of Vietnam Veterans of America, Inc. ®
An organization chartered by the U.S. Congress
May/June 2005
FEATURE
 
 

An Enduring Veteran-to-Veteran Effort
 

BY JIM BELSHAW

Now in its eleventh year, the Veterans Initiative Task Force (VITF) began with far more questions than answers, the most compelling an unasked one that hung in the air at the first meeting between veterans who had clear memories of being mortal enemies in the not-so-distant past. On one side of the table, a VVA delegation had come bearing artifacts from the war that they hoped would help the Vietnamese locate some of their estimated 300,000 missing; on the other side of the table were Vietnamese veterans of the “American War,” those VVA hoped to engage in the effort to answer questions about America’s missing.

“We were former enemies meeting one another, large numbers of veterans on both sides of the table, asking questions,” VVA President Tom Corey said of that first meeting in 1994. “The biggest question was: ‘Where do we go from here?’”

The VITF had asked the membership to donate materials—documents, photographs, battlefield souvenirs —that might lead to the recovery of missing Vietnamese. It was hoped that such a gesture would lead to better cooperation in the American effort to recover its missing. Corey and VITF Chair Bob Maras believe that the long and cooperative relationship built over the years between VVA, the Vietnamese, and the U. S. detachment in Hanoi conducting recovery operations played a crucial role in the discovery of the remains of twelve Marines at Ngok Tavak.

At the heart of the VITF philosophy is the belief that a soldier-to-soldier encounter would be more productive than anything governments might do.

“Government-to-government wasn’t really working,” Maras said. “We thought warrior-to-warrior would be a better way to build a bridge. The soldier-to-soldier bond has been incredibly positive. If someone had told me ten years ago that I’d be shaking hands with someone who was once shooting at me, I wouldn’t have believed it.”

The early trips made by VITF delegations were marked by apprehension. Corey said that with each successive trip the tension eased.

“Everyone watched us to see if it would be a one-time thing,” Corey said. “They weren’t excited to see us coming on that first trip. Those first meetings were tense on both sides of the table. There were still a lot of issues left over from the war. But they saw we returned with more positive information and they started opening up more. They wanted to see if the same people would be coming back and that’s an important thing. It built continuity and trust. We brought stuff back in good faith and directed the Vietnamese to sites and those sites were productive.”

In the sixteen trips made to Vietnam, VITF delegations have delivered information to the Vietnamese Veterans Association on 8,694 Vietnamese KIAs; 1,086 Vietnamese prisoners, and two Vietnamese MIAs.

To underscore the importance of cooperation, Maras pointed to a report from the American detachment in Hanoi.

“A few years ago a Vietnamese man got one of our flyers and asked JTF [Joint Task Force/Full Accounting in Hanoi] if it was a good thing,” Maras said. “JTF said it was. The Vietnamese man said he knew where an American pilot was buried. His plane had crashed behind the man’s house and, out of respect, he buried the pilot. The JTF sent out a team, dug down a few feet, hit corrugated tin, pulled it back and there was the pilot, still in his flight suit, dog tags, everything else. That showed that the Vietnamese were willing to work with us as long as we were willing to work with them.”

Maras and Corey emphasized the importance of continuity in dealing with the Vietnamese, saying that the relationships built up over the years provided a sense of confidence that has proven to be productive for both sides.

“With the Vietnamese, the message carries on down through the country,” Corey said. “‘The Vietnam Veterans of America are here, and they’ve come back with more information.’ As we go to different provinces, they turn over information to us and we do the same for them.”

Maras said information given to the Vietnamese recently led to the discovery of a gravesite holding the remains of 50 to 60 Vietnamese in Dong Ha Province. He said the relationship that led to such cooperative efforts played a critical role in the recovery of the Marines’ remains at Ngok Tavak.

“The Veterans Initiative played a crucial role in Ngok Tavak because they [JTF] had gone to the site several times and weren’t able to find the exact position of the remains. We kept pursuing the issue and we kept saying, ‘They’re here, they’re here, and we have to keep looking.’ They kept at it and we kept going at it and they finally found the Marines.”

Corey said such efforts need to continue.

“In the words of JPAC, it will go on as long as the Veterans Initiative returns and keeps doing what we’re doing providing information,” he said. “We’re the ones who are getting the Vietnamese to come forward. It’s veterans who can do this. Ngok Tavak wasn’t something we were going to let go of. It was a closed issue, but it was the persistence of the Veterans Initiative and others in VVA that made things happen. I think the Veterans Initiative is here as long as we continue to contribute to the fullest possible accounting. As long as we can to that, we will continue moving forward with this relationship with the country of Vietnam and JPAC.”

   

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