America must bring its lost brigade home from Vietnam before it’s too late
Tam Nguyen received the most dreaded gift. A folded flag. To the sound of a lone bugler playing taps, his son was laid to rest with full military honors.
U.S. Marine Corporal Tevan Nguyen of Hutto, Texas, was killed in Afghanistan three days after Christmas. He was 21. The pain will last a lifetime but for the Nguyen family there is a sense of closure.
Tevan Nguyen and William Duggan have something in common. U.S. Air Force Major Duggan lived 30 minutes from Nguyen in Leander, Texas.
Thirty-nine years ago, Duggan took off in an F-4D Phantom targeting the Ho Chi Minh Trail and never returned. Duggan is listed as Missing-in-Action in Vietnam, the country Nguyen’s father fled.
This Memorial Day, the nation honors its fallen servicemen and the United States is still searching for over 1,700 missing from the Vietnam War. Since 1985, the U.S. military has been working in the Socialist Republic of Vietnam to find the remains of service members like Duggan.
To date, American teams helped identify over 600 MIAs. Recovering the remains of soldiers from a war fought so long ago seems impossible, yet they are doing it.
U.S. Army Lt. Col. Patrick Keane commands Detachment 2, Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command (JPAC) in Hanoi, a group of Americans and Vietnamese working year-round to resolve MIA cases.
Recently, the Vietnamese government authorized additional teams to recover American MIAs, a welcome result of decades of diplomacy. Astonishingly, the military bureaucracy and for its part, the United States, decided not to increase its efforts, maintaining the “go slow” status quo.
“The soil in Southeast Asia is very acidic and the longer we wait, there’s not going to be anything left,” said Keane. Cases are 40 years old, evidence is disappearing and witnesses are dying. Given the current level of effort, there is a real possibility many of these Americans will never make it home.
And it’s not the Vietnamese who are the problem. It’s the U.S.
When President Clinton lifted the trade embargo in 1994, he encouraged Vietnamese cooperation to find American MIAs. Today, the Vietnamese want to put the war behind them, viewing any hostility from U.S. veteran organizations as an impediment to improving its relationship with the U.S.
Keane said, “There are no easy sites [left] . . . like in the middle of the rice paddy . . . We’re dealing with mountain sides, mountain tops.” And there are more leads and sites to dig than there are teams available. Last year, JPAC found 19 possible sets of remains. At this rate, it will take 30 years to investigate the current caseload.
Keane’s unit runs 12 to 14 recoveries a year. If the U.S. took advantage of the Vietnamese offer they could double the recovery pace. So how can the U.S. increase the effort in Vietnam before there’s nothing left to find?
The answer is not rocket science. It’s forensic science (and math). Increase the budget, add scientists, send out more teams. It is shameful that the U.S. has been unwilling to match the will of this Third-World nation where 58,000 Americans lost their lives.
Doubling the effort would cost an additional $5 million, not even a rounding error in a Department of Defense budget of $690 billion and a trillion-dollar federal stimulus. The issue is clearly not money, it’s priorities.
Major Duggan flew his last mission on New Year’s Eve in 1971 and it’s been four decades since that fateful day. All Americans who make the ultimate sacrifice for their country deserve the same recognition Corpl. Nguyen and his family received.
America must fulfill its duty to the 1,700 and bring closure to their families and to a troubled chapter of our nation’s history.
MyLinh Shattan is a writer and former U.S. Army Officer. She was evacuated from Saigon with her family in 1975.