Is Time Running Out to Find Soldiers' Remains in Vietnam?

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Hoang Dinh Nam / AFP / Getty Images

Nguyen Dang Thanh, 70, walks among graves of unidentified Vietnam War soldiers at a cemetery in the outskirts of Dong Ha, Vietnam, in 2005

Grief hangs over the frail face of Bui Thi Me, a communist intellectual contemplating the deaths of three of her sons. For a year in the late 1960s, she had no idea that two of her missing children had perished in central Vietnam while fighting U.S. troops. "It took the government a long time to deliver the news in 1969," says the 83-year-old, a retired propagandist and Social Affairs Minister in Ho Chi Minh City. "I almost gave up on my search for them. The army only found scattered parts of their bodies."

Today, Me stores the ashes of one son in an urn atop a cabinet in her home. Another son went unaccounted for during combat in central Vietnam, and when a U.S. bomb detonated near her third son's grave site, his remains were destroyed. Though she says she's found a sense of peace, the deaths of three of her four sons have left lingering wounds, in no small part because she doesn't have all of their remains in a culture that places importance on them. She and other Vietnamese and American mothers are now elderly, she argues, leaving scant time to find the 300,000 Vietnamese soldiers and the 1,700 American ones still missing from the Vietnam War. "American and Vietnamese mothers have both suffered, and finding them will ease that suffering that has happened for so long," she says.

Madame Me, the prewar honorific her neighbors still use to address her, belongs to an aging generation of parents of service members killed or gone missing in the 1960s and early 1970s in Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and southeastern China. Many are now in their 80s and 90s, meaning that after they die, scientists will increasingly have difficulties comparing the DNA samples extracted from recovered remains with their relatives. Meanwhile, the acidic soil and termites in the region's jungles eat away at bones, further hampering their identification. It's an issue that is pushing forward cooperation between the two former warring nations, says Ann Mills-Griffiths, head of the National League of Families of American Prisoners and Missing in Southeast Asia, an activist group based in Virginia. "The [missing persons] cases in which parents are living should receive priority," she says.

Ever since U.S. forces departed Vietnam in 1973, the issues of MIAs and POWs have been sore points that helped break down normalization talks in the late 1970s and that started again in the early 1990s. The 1973 Paris peace accords, the treaty that ended direct U.S. military involvement in Vietnam, stipulated that both sides cooperate to locate remains of deceased service members. But until the 1980s, Vietnamese authorities denied they had been storing some American bodies, a claim that was later questioned when Vietnam unilaterally returned remains it had collected. Some activist groups raised suspicions that many missing service members were actually alive and left behind when U.S. forces departed Vietnam.

During Ronald Reagan's second presidential term in the late 1980s, the issue of the remains gained momentum as dubiosity grew over Vietnam's withholding them and after some Indo-Chinese refugees reported that they had sighted living service members in their home countries. The matter culminated when Vietnam and the U.S. reinstated diplomatic relations in 1995, a move that some activists resisted. They argued that Vietnam was not fully dedicated to accounting for all recoverable remains, an unfulfilled effort declared by earlier presidential Administrations to be a condition to normalization. Since then, several investigations by Congress and the military have dispelled the hypothesis that living service members are being held in Vietnam. As of today, the remains of 890 American service members have been repatriated and identified, but the Defense Department lists 1,693 of them as still unaccounted for.

In Hanoi, a parallel but modest movement to identify the remains of Vietnamese veterans has been gaining momentum. While the Vietnamese government operates a program to assist American MIA researchers, Vietnamese officials have said for decades they lack the funds and manpower to find the hundreds of thousands of missing Vietnamese service members. Last November, for the first time, the U.S. agreed to fund a $1 million project that will train Vietnamese authorities to find their own MIAs. And the cooperation has continued to build: in the past year, the Vietnamese government has been relaxing access to archives that contain information about killed or missing U.S. troops — part of a wider expansion of its military ties with the U.S. to maintain a regional balance of power against China.

Many remains are from American pilots who crashed at high speeds and are therefore complicated to identify. But technology is easing the process. Forensic anthropologists, for example, can identify them by examining mitochondria, organelles inside cells that possess their own genetic codes. Government officials and activists acknowledge some MIAs will never be found, no matter how thorough the effort. "The objective was always to account for the fullest number of missing," says Mills-Griffiths. "It was never expected that they would account for everyone."

After the current generation of eyewitnesses and DNA carriers dies, the excavations could resemble those relying on historical archives to locate the 74,000 service members who went missing in World War II and the 8,000 in the Korean War. And in Vietnam — a country where a dearth of reliable information has pushed bereaved families to consult fortune-tellers about their missing children — the opening of archives will be an asset. "Maybe we can't find all of our children," says Me, "but we can do our best while there is still time."