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A Demand From the 'Dead' : Vietnamese ex-commandos abandoned by the U.S. are suing

June 11, 1996

In 1965 Nguyen Van Ke was declared dead or missing in North Vietnam by the U.S. military command. Today the 63-year-old former South Vietnamese commando lives in La Puente. What happened in between is a tale of deceit and cover-up by the Pentagon. Newly declassified documents support allegations by surviving commandos that the U.S. military turned its back on the hundreds of men recruited to infiltrate North Vietnam in covert CIA-sponsored operations during the 1960s.

The 200,000 or so pages of documents showed that the United States declared them dead even when it had information they had been captured alive and sentenced to prison. Their wives were paid a $200 "death gratuity." Then the entire case was wrapped in secrecy. The records were made public last week in response to requests under the Freedom of Information Act from the commandos' lawyers and The Times.

The former commandos--many, like Nguyen, live in Los Angeles or Orange counties--have a suit pending in U.S. Claims Court for $11 million in pay that they claim the U.S. military guaranteed their families if they were captured. Attorneys for the Justice Department, CIA and Army, in refusing to pay the commandos' claims, cite an 1875 Supreme Court decision on a Civil War case that held contracts with secret agents are unenforceable in courts.

Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), himself a decorated Vietnam veteran, has said that the U.S. breach of faith with the commandos is unconscionable. He is considering proposing an amendment to the Defense Department authorization bill to provide compensation for the former commandos out of the Pentagon budget. The plight of the men has attracted the support of a number of other high-profile Vietnam War veterans, including retired Army Gen. William C. Westmoreland, who commanded the U.S. military in Vietnam through most of the 1960s.

"Why did America forget us?" asked Nguyen, who spent 13 years in a North Vietnamese prison. It is a humiliating question, and the unequivocal answer to it is compensation for the commandos.

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