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Identifying MIA Remains Is an Uphill Task in Vietnam

October 13, 2002|David Thurber | Associated Press Writer

HANOI -- Spread on the table in front of the Vietnamese army officer are a corroded belt buckle, a few handmade buttons and a watch with its hands frozen at 7:15.

They are parts of a puzzle that Maj. Nguyen Thi Tien hopes will help her identify the remains of some of the nearly 300,000 soldiers her government says are still missing in action from the Vietnam War.

The meager personal belongings found with unearthed remains are one of the few ways that Vietnam can identify its dead since communist forces kept only simple records for regular soldiers and often none at all for guerrilla fighters.

"It's very different from how American MIA investigators do it," Tien said. "We don't have much to go on."

U.S. teams searching for the 1,905 Americans still listed as missing in action from the Vietnam War -- including 1,441 inside Vietnam -- can match DNA to medical records.

But there are few such records for Vietnam's MIAs.

When Vietnamese search teams are lucky, they find hastily carved grave markers made from pieces of aluminum from downed American planes or other metal scraps, Tien said.

One soldier's body was identified after Tien arranged for a photograph found in a shirt pocket to be published in a newspaper.

It was seen by a family member and identified by the dead man's mother, Tien said.

Another soldier was identified through a New Year's card he carried that carried the message, "I will keep waiting for you until you return. New Year 1968."

While Vietnam and the United States have held 71 joint investigations to trace missing Americans, the United States has done little to help the Vietnamese search.

That is now changing, U.S. Ambassador Raymond Burghardt said.

"It's finally a two-way street," he said. "About two years ago, the Vietnamese side said they'd like to get serious about accounting for their missing. Since then, we've provided technical assistance and thousands of pages of documents."

Vietnamese forensic specialists have had training in DNA methods, and three archivists were brought to the United States to research American files, said Lt. Col. Steve Hawley, commander of the U.S. MIA office in Hanoi.

Last month, the United States turned over additional records of "where we think we killed and buried Vietnamese," Hawley said.

But Le Quang Bay, deputy director of the government's Department of War Invalids and Martyr Affairs, said DNA training and documents are of limited use.

"Even if you have a piece of a bone to identify, Vietnam has no records with which to match it," he said. "The war was a long time ago, and the terrain has changed a lot because of weather conditions, and many of the records have proved inaccurate."

Although prospects for identifying most are bleak, Vietnam has expanded its search in recent years for the many soldiers believed to have been buried in temporary graves at old battle sites.

In a country where ancestor worship is an unofficial religion, identifying and properly burying the dead is a high priority. But poverty, political turmoil and military conflicts with neighboring Cambodia and China for years prevented Vietnam from launching a full-scale search.

In recent years, 18,527 sets of remains have been repatriated from Laos and about 3,600 from Cambodia, officials say.

The government says about 3 million Vietnamese, including civilians, were killed in the war. About 1 million were communist combatants, and remains of about 700,000 have been recovered, Bay said, but only 40% of these have been identified.

Row after row of graves in more than 3,000 special war cemeteries throughout the country are marked "Unknown Martyr."

Vietnam's communist government does not keep records of missing or dead soldiers who fought for the defeated South Vietnamese government, and their bodies are not allowed in the war cemeteries, Bay said.

About 58,200 Americans were killed in the conflict. Accounting for the 1,905 missing Americans has been a cornerstone issue in U.S.-Vietnamese relations since the two countries began a tentative detente in the late 1980s.

Tien, 46, is a quiet-spoken former teacher who says her seven brothers and brothers-in-law fought in the war. One brother-in-law was killed 1972 and his remains weren't found until 20 years later, she said.

Tien said she became interested in identifying soldiers' remains while working as a guide in an army museum in Vinh, a North Vietnamese city that was almost destroyed by American bombing during the war.

She noticed that many belongings found with the remains of soldiers were being reburied along with the bodies in war cemeteries, and suggested two years ago that they should be kept for possible future identification.

In the first year, she was able to use the belongings to identify 38 sets of remains, she said.

"Each time I'm able to identify someone, I can't sleep, I can't eat," Tien said. "It gives me strength to continue on. And I think we may have to continue forever."

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