BY GRANT COATES, CHAIR
In this 27th year of the Veterans Initiative Program, 27 missions to Vietnam have been completed. VVA has delivered 303 cases containing information submitted by U.S. veterans on the location or identification of the remains of those killed during the war. The case delivered this time pinpointed a location, identified the units involved, and was accompanied by photographs, maps, and narratives of the event. More than 2,500 Vietnamese war dead have been located based on information contained in VVA’s cases. If all estimates contained in the cases had been retrieved, some 15,000 remains would have been recovered.
Prior to the departure for Vietnam, on January 30, Mokie Porter, VVA Director of Communications and VI Protocol Officer, and I attended the Commencement Ceremony of the 25th anniversary of the establishment of Vietnamese diplomatic relations with the United States at Vietnam House in Washington, D.C. Amb. Ha Kim Ngoc, who was the host, had met the VI members several times in Vietnam while he was the Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs in charge of relations with countries in the Americas.
The team departed Dulles Airport on February 6 for Hanoi, with a stopover in Incheon, South Korea. The coronavirus was already appearing in Asia; we took precautions. At Noi Ba Airport, the team was greeted by Bui Van Nghi, Secretary General of the Vietnam Union of Friendship Organization. He has been a close friend of VVA for years and assists with itinerary arrangements for VI missions.
In Hanoi, meetings started with Amb. Nguyen Tam Chien, VUFO executive member of the Vietnam Union and President of the Vietnam-USA Society, followed by press interviews. In addition to meeting with VUFO, we met with Nguyen Song Phi, Vice President, Veterans Association of Vietnam; and Van Bieu, Vice Manager, Hao Lo Historical Relics Museum, formerly Hoa Lo Prison (Hanoi Hilton), LTC Adam Points, Defense Prisoner of War-Missing in Action Accounting Agency, and his staff; and Nguyen Hong Quang, Deputy Director, Americas Department of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs on February 7.
Meetings also were held with Gen. Nguyen Van Rinh, President of VAVA; Gen. Nguyen The Luc, Vice President; and Pham Truong, head of external relations department. Gen. Rinh said that since 2018, with U.S. support, Vietnam has completed the decontamination of the Danang Airport and has begun work on the Bien Hoa Airport. He encouraged VVA to continue to search for remains of Vietnamese missing and continue to educate about unexploded ordnance.
The next meeting was with officers representing the Ministry of National Defense. Along with an overview of activities between Vietnam and the U.S., a detailed report was given by Sr. Col. Luong, commander of the Committee for Search and Repatriation of Remains of Fallen Soldiers.
“The witnesses are dying,” Luong said. “Our older veterans are the living library of what happened. They have a wealth of knowledge. Our veterans are old; some are over 80, but we still have to go meet with them face to face to interview them.”
Arriving in Hue on February 12, the team met with representatives from the Vietnam Union of Friendship Organizations of Thua Thien Hue Province: Tran Thi Mai, Ph.D., President; Nguyen Huy Thai, Deputy Director, Department of Foreign Affairs; and Nguyen Dung, Vice Chair, the People’s Committee of Thua-Thien Hue Province. Mai stated: “I am very glad to see the two of you are still well. I have worked with Grant and Mokie many times. We can say we are family.”
The team then met with the People’s Committee of Thua-Thien Hue Province, chaired by Nguyen Dung, Vice Chair. Also in attendance were Nguyen Vinh Sinh, Chair, VAVN Hue; and Nguyen Huy Thai, Deputy Director, Department of Foreign Affairs of Thua-Thien Hue Province. Nguyen Vinh Sinh said: “This is the 23rd year I have known Mokie Porter, and in 2020 we celebrate the 25th Anniversary of U.S.-Vietnam normalization. Together we have watched the progress and the development, and now our two countries have our comprehensive partnership. I highly appreciate the efforts and contributions of VVA. This humanitarian initiative on your part has contributed to the recovery of more than 1,000 sets of remains of our fellow countrymen. For Thien Hue Province specifically, you have provided 20 dossiers pertaining to 2,000 cases of Vietnamese MIAs.”
Traveling to Quang Tri Province, meetings were held with VAVN Chair, Vice Chair, Head of Training Committee, and Head of Policy Committee of Quang Tri. The Chair stated: “We have created a cozy and friendly atmosphere, because we are working on humanitarian activities. And as usual, we work together to have a better understanding of POW/MIA Affairs. It is the job of our governments to focus on the lost remains of soldiers. Our focus has had a mutual purpose—the accounting for our countrymen who remain unaccounted for—and that is why we are close together. We will do our best to keep going on this humanitarian project, because this is what is best for all.”
A statement made during the meeting with the Peoples Committee of Quang Tri and the Department of Foreign Affairs captured the meaning of the VI mission: “You came before normalization, and you laid the foundation. Today we are looking toward a brighter future. We are indebted to VVA for its Veterans Initiative Program. You have provided us information to locate the remains of over 10,000 unrecovered from the war. In 1994, I myself assisted in the recovery of a U.S. MIA. And I witnessed the happiness when the family received the remains. However, a lot of Vietnamese are still searching for their loved ones. In my family, three uncles were sacrificed during the war. Recently, we were able to locate all three sets of remains. We should keep up our efforts. Time passes very fast, and a lot of our older witnesses can’t remember the past.”
During past missions, a stop at Firebase Tomahawk was made to honor all war dead of the battle. Due to erosion, overgrowth, and construction in the area, we paid our respects at a monument in Phuoc Loc hamlet instead. In the past visits to the monument, an elderly man was the caretaker of the property. This year his widow said he had died at the age of 98.
A meeting was held with Da Nang’s Union of Friendship Organizations Vice Chair Pham Hu Hoa, Nguyen Thi My Hoa, and old friend Nguyen Thi Kim Tuyen. During the meeting, a request from the Chair’s wife was made: “When my wife found out that I was going to meet with you, she said to me, ‘Maybe they can help find my brother.’ ”
On February 16, the team met with Bui Tin, Executive Vice President of VAVN and former military commander of Da Nang. He said: “We are highly appreciative of VVA’s goodwill and strong commitment. We are active on this issue as well and, on behalf of VVA and the U.S., we cooperate in the recovery of your MIAs. Forty-five years after the war, many widows are looking for the remains of their loved ones. On behalf of the Da Nang VAVN, we thank you, and we ask you to relay the importance of these issues to your government.”
In Tam Ky/Quang Nam, the team met Huyn Con Thien, Chair of the Quang Nam Provincial Association; Ngo Chi Khong, Vice Chair; and Phon Dinh Thong, Vice Chair of the Quang Nam Provincial VAVN.
On February 21, a meeting was held with staff of the U.S. Consulate General in Ho Chi Minh City. A briefing of the VI Program was presented as well as an update of the current mission.
A joint meeting was held with the Vice President of Peoples Committee of Ho Chi Minh City, VAVN of HCM City, and the Ho Chi Minh City Union of Friendship Organizations. The VAVN Chair said, “I am grateful for the close relationship between the veterans of both sides. American veterans have provided a lot of information that has helped to recover our unaccounted for from the war. I concur with Mr. Coates. We encounter lots of difficulty in finding them, despite our 45 years of efforts. We will keep trying until there is no hope left. On behalf of the veterans of HCM City and all of Vietnam, I thank you for your work in bringing our nations closer. It is soldiers who feel the pain of war—therefore, it is left to us to do our duty to return our comrades to their families. It doesn’t matter who we fought for, Americans or Vietnamese.”
The final meeting was held with Vietnam’s second highest ranking Buddhist monk. Word of VVA’s longtime assistance in the recovery of the remains had reached Most Ven. Dr. Thich Thien Tam, abbot of the Pho Minh Pagoda. Our presence was requested at the Vietnam Buddhist Sangha, and Tam expressed his gratitude for the important humanitarian work helping bring home the ghosts of war.
For the Veterans Initiative Program, the search for information regarding the location of burial sites is ongoing, regardless of the hardships of time or the impact of the coronavirus.
The motivational phrase of the mission: Act like failure is not an option.