BY GRANT COATES, MOKIE PORTER, AND RICHARD DeLONG
The 2017 Vietnam mission of the Veterans Initiative Program will be recorded as one of the most positive and productive of the twenty-five missions since the inception of the program. One of the common themes voiced during the mission’s meetings with government agencies, non-government agencies, humanitarian organizations, and individuals interested in seeking, locating, and returning war dead in Vietnam is that time is the enemy.
Starting in Hanoi and ending in Ho Chi Minh City, the meetings with Vietnam’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ministry of National Defense, People’s Committees, Vietnam-USA Society, Vietnam Union of Friendship Organization, Veterans Association of Vietnam, DPAA Detachment 2, U.S. Ambassador Osius, Vietnam Association for Victims of Agent Orange/Dioxin, and the Department of Labour, Invalids and Social Affairs were productive with an exchange of information relating to the recovery of both American and Vietnamese missing from the war. For the first time the mission members met at all levels of government. Also for the first time, the team met with individual veterans in rural hamlets.
Updates from Detachment 2, DPAA, clarified questions presented by the VI regarding specific cases of interest. Definitions of titles and classification procedures for the status of cases were presented, along with statistical data pertaining to the 1,257 cases categorized as Vietnam losses. 1,023 cases are classified as “Further Pursuit,” 91 are “Deferred,” and 497 are “No Further Pursuit.” DPAA reported on February 23 that 1,616 Americans are still missing and unaccounted for, 90 percent in Vietnam or in areas of Cambodia and Laos under Vietnam’s wartime control. DPAA stated that the cooperation on the Vietnamese side continues; our Vietnamese counterparts have expressed more willingness to do archival research, and all areas are now open and accessible. “We have increased unilateral cooperation, and four of the eleven remains handed over were by locals,” said Commander LTC Romel Pajimula.
“We are down from eight or nine teams to only four teams this fiscal year,” he said. “We hope to continue the pace. Your voice to the administration is very important. We hope that you will continue to help us in Vietnam to strengthen the relationship between our two countries. VVA is the first service organization to come to Vietnam. Getting more information from the veteran is critical. We hope to continue to work with you towards the fullest possible accounting.”
The same position was echoed throughout the country during meetings with organizations involved with recovering the war dead. In Quang Tri Province, Tran Khanh Phoi, Vice Director of the Provincial Foreign Affairs Department, said: “Though we are former enemies, we are the same. As old veterans, we have our priority, bringing the dead home to the families. In 1991, I started working with Joint Task Force recovery teams. Now I head the counterpart group for seeking MIAs. We highly appreciate your efforts and activities in this program. You are older than us and you continue. I commit to continue my work in Quang Tri until there are no more MIAs.” POW/MIA Affairs Committee Co-Chair Grant Coates responded: “We enjoy the energy of the next generation and their commitment.”
The People’s Committee of Quang Tri Province said: “We must speed up our work on the war legacy issues. We promise to recommit our efforts and cooperation.” A member of the Veterans Association of Vietnam in Dong Ha said, “The MIA issue is a big issue in Vietnam. We share the same pain of the war. We are veterans. From that feeling we also have a responsibility for the aftermath of war.”
While meeting with the president of the Thua Thien Hue Province Vietnam Union of Friendship Organizations, Dr. Tran Thi Mai said: “We thank you for continuing your Veterans Initiative Program. Over the years, you have provided us with 80 cases, representing 1,809 Vietnamese KIA.” VVA presents each province with VI cases specific to the geographical area.
Nguyen Dung, Vice Chair of the People’s Committee of Thua Thien Hue Province, said, “You were a soldier and I was a soldier. It is our duty to ensure that no one is left behind. We believe that we must mobilize all veterans to work on the postwar issuesour soldiers, your soldiers, and the old soldiers of the South Vietnamese region.”
VI members told the Vietnamese: “There are certain memories of smells and sites, and it is the memory of war that we are trying to incite in the veterans of both sides. The VIP has continued its commitment of getting information on the war dead. Time is everybody’s enemy, and our memories fade as we are no longer young.”
All the meetings shared a common theme, agreeing with the VI. The Director of the External Relations Department of the Veterans Association of Vietnam, retired Sr. Col. Tran Ngoc Dan, said: “We highly appreciate your efforts to find information about our MIAs. Some 200,000 are still missing. We propose that you continue to gather artifacts and diaries. You as an organization have helped us in recent years. We hope you will find more information to help us recover our missing from the war. In about twenty years, if we cannot find our MIAs, they will be lost to time.”
“It’s been twenty-four years since we first met with VVA over the Veterans Initiative Program,” said Huynh Duc Truong, Chair of the Da Nang Union of Friendship Organizations. “We have shared many activities with great results. We highly appreciate your assistance and information that you have provided on our missing thus far. Thanks to your efforts, 1,500 remains have been found and reburied in cemeteries with honors.”
VVA Vice President Marsha Four responded: “You never will get older because your spirit and goodwill will pass to the next generation. The VI program will be forever until we finish the issue and will continue with the next generation until all are accounted for.”
During a February 17 meeting with the Ho Chi Minh City People’s Committee, Vice Chair Huynh Cach Mang said: “We highly appreciate your MIA program for both sides and your efforts in helping locate sets of remains. We welcomed you in February 2015, and this is your second visit. I hope that VVA will continue to cooperate with Vietnam on the legacies of the war.” Four replied: “VVA will continue the humanitarian veteran-to-veteran mission until we are no longer able.”
“We spare no efforts to promote these programs,” Mang said. “I have requested our members to give more information. As you say, the common enemy is time. I also want to send my regards to the U.S. victims of Agent Orange.”
While meeting with the Veterans Association of Ho Chi Minh City, a U.S. Military ID card with a note was presented to the team. The card had been found near the Cambodian border by a former VC who has since died. While the man was in a hospital, he asked his doctor to give the card to the VAVN or somebody who should have it. The presentation of information involving U.S. personnel was a very significant and symbolic act of trust and cooperation between veterans.
VVA Vice President Marsha Four, POW/MIA Committee Co-Chairs Grant Coates and Richard Delong, and VVA Communications Director and Protocol Officer Mokie Porter traveled more than twenty-five thousand miles between February 1 and 24. While in Vietnam, the team attended thirty-eight meetings in eleven areas. Meetings were also held with advisers from Project RENEW, a team from the Green Cross (Switzerland’s version of the Red Cross), and the Vietnam-USA Society in Ho Chi Minh City.
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