A publication of Vietnam Veterans of America, Inc. ®
An organization chartered by the U.S. Congress

October 2000/November 2000

VVA’s Veterans Initiative: Maintaining the Connection

By Jim Belshaw

Five years ago, Geoffrey Steiner, a former Marine from Minnesota, responded to the Veterans Initiative by submitting a map he hoped would lead to the recovery of Vietnamese MIA remains near Cam Lo, just off central Vietnam's Highway Nine. The hopes were not realized. Vietnamese teams made preliminary excavations that found nothing.

Last June, Steiner drew another map in anticipation of visiting Vietnam himself. With the help of VVA’s Veterans Initiative, arrangements were made for Steiner to go to the Cam Lo site.

New excavations were begun. Remains were discovered. Steiner predicts more will be found.

"It's always been in the back of my mind," he said. "I close my eyes, and I can see [the battle site]. I can smell it. I remember seeing a guy laying there--a dead NVA--who had a wedding band on his finger, and it made it very personal for me. So when I heard about the Veterans Initiative, my main concern was sending in the map and showing where I was and what I knew in the hope that it would encourage the Vietnamese to help us find our guys."

VVA Vice President Tom Corey said the experience reflected the aims of the Veterans Initiative and provided evidence of its continued viability.

"This is how we started the Initiative," Corey said. "We took witnesses back with us when we could--people who had information--and it worked. Since the 1996 trips, we've done it mostly with information sent in by veterans, such as maps and other documents. They had good results, as was reported to us by the Ministry of Defense on a trip this past February."

Corey said Vietnamese officials recorded the recovery of more than 800 sets of remains based on information provided by veterans to VVA.

Begun in 1993, the Veterans Initiative has tried to help the Vietnamese account for their MIAs in the hope that the effort would encourage Vietnam to cooperate with the United States in its efforts for the fullest possible accounting of American MIAs.

Corey said the effort is succeeding.

"The Vietnamese have been very cooperative with us," he said. "Each time we return, more Vietnamese witnesses come forward. They're good witnesses, and the Joint Task Force-Full Accounting has gotten results from them in the search for American remains."

Geoffrey Steiner, an 18-year-old Marine rifleman in 1968, had contacted VVA before his trip to Vietnam in June. He wanted to know if VVA would send someone to accompany him. When this proved impossible, Steiner was put in contact with Veterans Initiative team member Bill Duker.

"Everything went well when he got there," Duker said. "The Vietnamese had excavated what I call `pilot holes,' but hadn't found anything. Geoff showed them where to dig. He had, in fact, put together a more accurate map. With him there on site to direct them, they dug in different places and found remains."

While the Vietnamese remain skeptical of Steiner's estimate, he maintains there could be as many as six hundred sets of remains in the area, although they would be scattered because of deterioration and the many air strikes called in on the day of the battle.

In a Reuters news dispatch from Cam Lo, Steiner said that after the battle, in which many Vietnamese died in spider holes following the air strikes, the Marines used a tank to push dirt over the many bodies that lay in the holes.

Regardless of differences on numbers, Duker found Steiner's experience encouraging.

"It's another indication that the Initiative is working," he said. "When we get good information, we can do our own research and we can match these things up, get good maps, and coordinate the hands-on maps with military maps. That's how we have success. It validates everything we said we would do with the Initiative."

When a Veterans Initiative delegation traveled to Vietnam last spring, Vietnamese officials provided a list of documents submitted through the Veterans Initiative and annotated the list to show which documents had produced results and which had not.

The Vietnamese asked if American veterans might be found who would be willing to return to Vietnam to act as witnesses and guides. Corey told the Vietnamese that the request would go out to the VVA membership.

"Extending this program and continuing to assist the Vietnamese with witnesses from our side is beneficial for all of us," Corey said. "If there are people out there with information that eventually could help American families with missing loved ones, and there are Vietnamese mothers and fathers still waiting for information on sons and daughters, then we should make every effort to find them."

Corey said VVA has built a good relationship with Vietnamese veterans in the years since the Veterans Initiative began.

"Geoff is one story," Corey said. "There are more Geoff Steiners out there. The Veterans Initiative needs to move forward. We've learned so much over the years in our meetings with Vietnamese veterans. We were all doing our jobs in the war. We were trying to survive and go home to our families. Now we have another job to do--helping those who didn't go home to get back, and we're doing it veteran to veteran, and it's working. We need to keep moving forward on behalf of the families on both sides."

Geoff Steiner said his actions amounted to a "small thing I could do."

"If you don't forgive, you'll never be healed," he said. "I wanted this to be seen as forgiveness. I know a mother whose son is missing and just to hear that anguish because they don't know--well, if I could help someone end that anguish, I wanted to."


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