Eerie Souvenirs From the Vietnam War

By Michelle Boorstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 3, 2007

Certain things are immediately apparent about the six human skulls lined up on the metal cabinet in a back room of Walter Reed Army Medical Center.

First, there is the graffiti scrawled across them, abrasive as wartime expressions can be: "Today's pigs are tomorrow's bacon" on one, "Stay high stay alive" on another, trippy thick stripes of bright blue, red and yellow on a third. Two eye sockets are filled with red candle wax, as though the skull had been used to light up a soldier's lonely night decades ago.

Second is their story. Unlike the thousands of other human specimens kept at the Defense Department's National Museum of Health and Medicine, staff anthropologists said, the skulls had been confiscated from U.S. soldiers who were trying to bring them home as macabre souvenirs from Vietnam in the 1970s.

"These are an anomaly at the museum," said Paul Stone of the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology, of which the museum is a part. Both are on the Walter Reed campus.

But the skulls are interesting for another reason, too, veterans' groups say: The U.S. government has never made any effort to return them to Vietnam.

In the 35 years since the institute took custody of the specimens, a massive infrastructure has been created to track down any evidence of missing Americans in Vietnam. Some 600 government employees staff that effort, and a parallel -- though far smaller -- campaign began in the 1990s to find some of the 300,000 Vietnamese missing from the war. Veterans' advocates, including the National League of Families and Vietnam Veterans of America, have put out the call to U.S. vets to return photos, diaries, maps or anything that could help locate Vietnamese war dead. According to the VVA, some 900 Vietnamese have been identified this way, primarily by leading investigators to mass grave sites.

"It's a no-brainer. Can you imagine some guy in Japan saying, 'I have six American skulls here in the closet; do you want them back?' And the government saying no?" said Jan Scruggs, president of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund.

According to museum officials, five of the skulls were confiscated in Vietnam when soldiers attempted to send them home. The sixth was found during a search of a footlocker at Fort Campbell, Ky.

The skulls and their mysteries typify how complex the issue of repatriation can be.

Although museum scientists presume from the age of the dead -- five young men and possibly one young woman -- and the context that they were Vietnamese combatants, they can't say for certain. The skulls could have come from a cemetery and could belong to fighters from Laos or Cambodia who were drawn into the conflict. The institute has never tried to track down the soldiers who took the skulls.

A potential obstacle, say Americans who work on repatriation issues, is the Vietnamese government. Although the Vietnamese public has lobbied in the past decade for help in finding its war dead, officials have sometimes turned away remains that can't be confirmed as Vietnamese who fought on the side of the triumphant North, U.S. advocates say.

"If the Vietnamese aren't guaranteed who they are, they don't want them," said Bill Duker, a veteran who works as a VVA representative on repatriation.

The Vietnamese have made no request for the return of the skulls. Cuong Nguyen, a spokesman for the Vietnamese Embassy, said officials had heard about the skulls for the first time in the past few days in the Vietnamese media and are "looking into it." "We appreciate any cooperation from the [U.S.] government, but so far we don't have any official information," Nguyen said.

Whether the skulls belonged to fighters or whether the Vietnamese government has the DNA records and resources to identify the people shouldn't matter, some U.S. veterans groups say.

"These are Vietnamese citizens who were brought out by Americans. Those remains belong back in Vietnam, no matter whose they are," said Ann Mills Griffiths, executive director of the National League of Families, which is made up of families of those missing in Southeast Asia.

The group has worked with the Vietnamese government to return unidentified remains, she said, including remains of fighters who might have been on the U.S. side during the war. "Heroes' cemeteries" with anonymous remains have been created, she said. "It was politically sensitive and took a long time, but it has helped a lot of families."

Stone said he did not know why the U.S. soldiers who took the skulls were not questioned at the time about where the items came from. Once they were in the institute's custody, however, "it's our responsibility to preserve them for scholarly use," he said. The museum has never exhibited the skulls publicly.

The institute has the U.S. soldiers' names, but Stone would not release them. Launching a probe to find the soldiers, he said, isn't the role of the institute or the museum.

"That's counter to what a museum does," said Franklin Damann, an anatomical curator at the museum who has worked with Asian governments on the repatriation of Americans' remains.

Government officials and private groups who work on the issue say it would be time-consuming and costly to research the skulls' history, and absent an official Vietnamese request and hard evidence of whom the skulls belonged to, it's not something the government would do automatically.

The institute has returned human remains before -- when asked. In 1972, it turned over to Japan more than 100 boxes of slides and tissue samples showing the impact of the World War II atomic bomb drop on Japanese citizens.

Paul Sledzik, a former curator at the museum who works on victim recovery and identification with the National Transportation Safety Board, has written and given talks on the skulls. He says there is more sensitivity today toward returning remains. That is due to advancements making remains identification more likely, as well as the domino effect of a 1990 law that created a mechanism for the U.S. government to return Native American remains, among other things, he said.

"I think back in the 1980s there was more of a sense of [an institution's] collection being a collection, and the need to reach out to return materials wasn't there," he said. "I think you're seeing a broader change around the world."

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