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September/October Issue

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The vi trip to ukraine

When I was elected VVA Vice President in August of 2005, the idea or the possibility was not in my mind. When VVA President Rowan told me early this year that he wanted me to make the trip with him, I thought, “Perhaps that would be interesting.” But, without question, the most significant activity for me as VP so far has been the Veterans Initiative trip to Ukraine.

As I traveled alone, I was reminded of going alone to Vietnam in 1967 and to Thailand in 1968. Except in this case, my mission was to help unravel lingering questions from a war, not to be part of an active armed conflict. The possible outcomes of the trip seemed to range from total success to total failure. As with most of life, the results would be somewhere in between.

When I landed in Amsterdam, it was the first time I had been to Europe. I had just flown over part of my heritage in Ireland and would be passing over the other significant segment in Poland. At the same time, I knew that a great deal was at stake in this trip regarding the POW/MIAs from the war in Vietnam.

Except for the flight attendants, I was the only English-speaking passenger on my flight to Kiev, Ukraine. It was like finding long-lost relatives when I cleared customs and saw Mokie Porter with Jim Connell and Walt Assur from the Defense POW-MIA Office. Bob Maras arrived shortly thereafter, completing our official team.

It was immediately noticeable, and quite remarkable, to see the fruits of many years of dedicated effort by the members of the VI team. Their knowledge of the city and its people was both interesting and reassuring. Kiev is a city of three million with history on display and with growth evident everywhere.

After readjusting to the time change (and coming down with the early stages of what turned out to be bronchitis), I visited the Vietnam, Afghanistan, and World War II museums. The losses and the sacrifices were as telling as the looks on the faces of those who had died and those who were visiting in their honor. This provided me with a valuable point of appreciation for the subsequent meetings in Kharkiv.

The meetings with the Kharkiv Organization of Vietnam Veterans (KOVV) formed the essence and the purpose of the trip. With a growing appreciation for the subtleties and the nuances of diplomacy, I joined with our counterparts over dinner and drinks. I had been advised that there would be toasts offered in a somewhat alternating manner. Although I was told that the first toast was in memory of those who had died in service to country, I did not know that glasses are not clinked in the process. That was Lesson No. 1.

The gathering served all very well. We would now be meeting not as strangers, but as fellow veterans seeking common goals. When the formal meeting ran into unexpected complications, I was able to work with the team to maintain mutual respect and take the next step for VVA with the KOVV. I was proud to sign a letter of cooperation with the KOVV and to discuss other matters of mutual interest. I was fully aware of the significance of this meeting and the beginning of this veteran-to-veteran relationship.

Petr Serdyuk, the KOVV President, was firm but fair. Nikolay Shershnev, Anotoly Sokolov, and Sergei Varyukin were the catalysts for progress, along with Iliana Romanchenko, their translator. That was Lesson No. 2. As a sign of sincerity, I invited a KOVV contingent to attend the VVA Leadership Conference in Tucson.
While VVA is pursuing POW/MIA resolution, the veterans in Ukraine are eager for guidance in developing a comprehensive veterans’ organization, and meaningful support systems for veterans and their families. Given the fact that Ukraine has been independent for just 15 years and that it suffered the loss of more that 10 million soldiers and citizens in WWII, it was humbling to be asked to help in this manner. It seems that VVA’s reputation as an organization that gets things accomplished has been noticed beyond our borders.

Perhaps the most significant result of the trip was the presentation of a list of 21 classified documents that will shed light on the fate of some American POW/MIAs from the war in Vietnam. It was given to the DPMO representatives by members of the KOVV with the request that the documents be declassified to enable access.

Among the other highlights of the trip was the observance and participation in the Victory Day parade and events in Kiev. Tens of thousands of Ukrainian citizens filled the streets on May 9 to honor their World War II veterans. It was heartwarming to feel the genuine appreciation for their service. Given their losses and recent independence, the day compelled me to think of what it must have been like on the 4th of July in the USA in 1791.

Bob Maras and I presented a wreath from VVA at one of the monuments in Kiev. We were observed, photographed, and thanked by dozens near the monument at that time.

Before leaving, we met with the Ukrainian Veterans Association (UVA) in Kiev. It was an informal gathering, but I made a promise that the next time VVA comes to Ukraine we will meet with the national organization before going to Kharkiv. That was Lesson No. 3.

The long-range implications of the trip were most obvious when the members of the KOVV suggested three-way meetings with the Vietnamese, VVA, and their organization. Such meetings can reasonably be expected to produce more results regarding POW/MIA matters. Given the rapidly growing economy in Vietnam, it now appears that time is not on our side. Sites may be lost to construction projects, and the chances to resolve questions for the United States and Vietnam may be reduced. The eagerness and sincerity of the Ukrainians in this regard cannot be understated.

When some of those Ukrainian veterans came to the Leadership Conference in Tucson, I believe it demonstrated that the hopes for future success are both justified and worth pursuing. It was an honor to represent VVA in this capacity.

As with most successful endeavors, a favorable outcome produces similar assignments. In October, I will be leading the VITF delegation to Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. This is a critical juncture and much is at stake. However, I know this for certain—I will no longer be traveling alone. That is Lesson No. 4.

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