Many Vietnamese Americans in search of MIAs’ remains as program is suspended

Matt McClain/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST - Nhung Vu talks about his brother, Nhinh, who was a sergeant fighting for South Vietnam and who has never been found after fighting during the Vietnam War.

Nhinh Vu, a sergeant fighting for South Vietnam, moved his wife and three children to the perceived safety of Saigon in March 1975. He then headed back to his barracks in Dalat.

A month later, Saigon fell and the Vietnam War ended. His family never saw Vu again.

(Courtesy of Nhi Le) - Nhi Le, front left, last heard from his brother, Bich Le, right, in 1972. The siblings are show with four of their five sisters outside their childhood home on a coffee farm in Vietnam.


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“Right after the war ended, April 30, 1975, the family right away went back to the barracks and looked for him,” his brother, 66-year-old Nhung Vu of Falls Church, said through an interpreter. “One place to the other, people told them, ‘They are there,’ and they went there, and people told them, ‘They are there,’ and they went there. . . . A number of soldiers left Vietnam, going with boats, and then for a number of years the family hoped he was one of them, that he was able to escape.”

Years passed with no word, and relatives let go of any dreams of finding Vu alive. But to this day, they pray that his remains can be found, identified and properly buried — so he can be freed in the hereafter.

Decades have passed since anyone dared hope that Vietnamese MIAs would be found in this life. It’s their uncertain fate in the afterlife that torments their loved ones now.

“To die without the proper burial is a very, very sad thing in our culture,” said Nhi Le, 60, whose brother has been missing since North Vietnam’s Easter Offensive in 1972. “You never go to heaven. You’re like a ghost. You wander from one place to another.”

The traditional Asian belief that a person’s soul cannot rest unless the body is properly interred makes the issue of MIAs particularly painful for many Vietnamese, even those who long ago made new lives for themselves in the United States.

That spiritual concern plays into Vietnamese Americans’ support of a recent U.S. government decision that might sound contrary to their interests: suspending a program to identify Vietnamese war dead.

At the urging of Sen. James Webb (D-Va.), the State Department is now withholding $1 million allocated to a U.S. Agency for International Development program that would identify remains until the Vietnamese government agrees to identify MIAs from both sides of the conflict.

That was the stated purpose of the program when Congress approved funding in December 2009. But as the initiative was set to get underway this month, Webb said, the Vietnamese government indicated that it would use the money to identify only soldiers from the Communist north, not southern troops who fought alongside U.S. forces.

“We basically have said this program should not go forward unless we have a guarantee that they’ll be looking for soldiers from both sides,” said Webb, who fought as a Marine in Vietnam and has visited the country many times since, most recently in August.

Officials with the Vietnamese Embassy in Washington did not return messages from The Washington Post seeking comment, but Hanoi indicated to the Agence France-Presse news service that it would reject any conditions on the money.

“We think that humanitarian cooperation must come from the spirit of goodwill, sincerity and without condition,” Vietnamese Foreign Ministry spokesman Luong Thanh Nghi told Agence France-Presse.

The decision to halt the program has been greeted positively by many Vietnamese Americans, who number more than 1.5 million nationwide, with nearly 60,000 in Virginia. They hope Hanoi will be pressured into searching for all war dead. Even some with ties to Communist MIAs approve, saying Hanoi must take care of all soldiers because the conflict divided families much as the American Civil War did.

“I have a lot of friends who have uncles who fought on both sides,” said Anne Khanh-Van, 37, a Mount Vernon accountant who left Vietnam at 19. She recalled how a friend’s mother displayed, until her death, two Vietnamese flags in her new home in America: one from the north, one from the south. Each honored a son still missing in action.

“How does the mother feel if we take care of only one and leave behind the other one?” Khanh-Van said.

At last count, 1,682 American soldiers were missing from the conflict, said Maj. Carie A. Parker, a spokeswoman for the Pentagon’s Defense POW/Missing Personnel Office. Three recently identified Americans — Master Sgt. Charles V. Newton, Sgt. 1st Class Douglas E. Dahill and Sgt. 1st Class Charles F. Prevedel — were buried Wednesday at Arlington National Cemetery.

“I can tell you that the overwhelming response that we get from families once their service member has been identified is one of closure,” Parker said.

For many Vietnamese families, the desire to locate remains is rooted less in that modern psychological concept than in ancient spiritual beliefs. They do not seek “closure” for themselves so much as eternal rest for the missing. An estimated 650,000 members of the North Vietnamese army and Viet Cong remain unidentified, as do an unknown number of soldiers of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam, Webb said.

“It concerns hundreds of thousands of families,” said Dao Hieu Thao, 63, a reporter with Radio Free Asia in Washington who was an air force officer for the Republic of Vietnam, the official name of South Vietnam. “Our Asian mentality, we should know about the fate of a family member missing in action. We want someone to have a grave, an altar with their photo. We are Asian, and we honor the soul.”

For Casey Cao, the MIA mourned is a playful uncle named Thanh Cao. He was the youngest of 10 children born to a French teacher and a homemaker in a small village about 75 miles northwest of Saigon.

“He loved kids,” said Cao, 48, a construction company owner who lives in Springfield. “He had a little motorcycle. He’d put me in the front of the motorcycle and take me around all over town.”

Thanh was drafted and disappeared in battle in 1972. Thanh’s wife, who by local custom was free to remarry three years after his disappearance, did not do so for 20 years. Everyone else in the family had long since concluded he was dead.

“We give up the idea of looking for him long time back,” Cao said.

Cao, who escaped Vietnam by boat as a teenager, said he no longer believes that a person’s soul is bound to the fate of his physical remains. But that belief is firmly held by many Buddhists, who burn incense and prepare offerings of food on behalf of departed relatives.

“They have tried to do ceremonies to help the soul,” Cao said. “My father’s sister does it for him. They pray to help his soul rest in peace.”

For Le, whose brother went missing during the Easter Offensive, the “ghost” he wishes could rest in peace started life on a coffee plantation in the central highlands of Ban Me Thuot.

Born one year apart, the brothers worked the farm together, weeding and keeping the coffee trees watered. When the diesel engine that ran the irrigation system gave out — and it always did during the critical period between the trees’ flowering and harvest — they hauled water to the plants by bucket.

“It’s not fun to be a farmer,” Le said. “It’s you against nature.”

Far more daunting battles lay ahead for Le, who became a pilot with the South’s Vietnamese air force, and his brother, Bich Le, an infantryman whose disappearance came during one of the war’s biggest battles. The pilot asked some high-ranking officers he knew to help locate his brother, but it was no use.

“Everybody was too busy with the war. Every family in South Vietnam had one or two missing in action,” Le said. “We accept the fact he’s missing in action.”

Which is not the same thing as accepting that Bich’s remains will never be found.

Le eventually settled in New Orleans, where he has a wife, two children and a job in computers. His mother, in her 90s, lives nearby. They see each other about once a month. Bich’s name, and eternal fate, always come up.

“Every time we gather together, we mention him, we all crying,” Le said. “My mother said, ‘He only die once, but we die over and over again.’ Had we recovered his body, we know he could rest in peace.”

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