There is a positive side to the People’s Republic of China flexing its military muscle and eyeing controversial land and sea lanes in Southeast Asia: It has inspired a thawing and overall improvement of Vietnamese and Laotian government officials’ efforts to work with the U.S. in searching for, identifying, and assisting in the return of the remains of 1,624 Americans who are listed as missing in action. These MIA soldiers are presumed to be dead from the Vietnam War, which ended April 30, 1975, when communist forces overran Saigon.

Of the 1,624 Americans still listed as missing or unaccounted for, most were lost in Vietnam or in areas of Cambodia and Laos under Vietnam’s wartime control. These are the missing and unaccounted missing as of December 13, 2015, according to DoD’s Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency:

  • 799 in South Vietnam
  • 467 in North Vietnam
  • 302 in Laos
  • 49  Cambodia
  • Seven in the People’s Republic of China’s territorial waters

Included in those numbers are Green Berets and airmen who fought in an eight-year secret war during the Vietnam War behind enemy lines in North Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. In Laos alone, there are approximately 51 Green Berets who remain listed as MIA and presumed to be killed in action, along with about 105 airmen who fought in the deadly secret war under the aegis of the Military Assistance Command Vietnam – Studies and Observations Group, or SOG.

“For those of us who survived the war fought secretly behind enemy lines, there’s no issue that haunts us more than the comrades left behind, still listed as MIA today,” said Rick Estes, president of the 3,000-member Special Operations Association, whose members served in the secret war from 1964 – 1972. “Thus we’re hopeful that this apparent thawing, or improvement in relations between the U.S. and Vietnam, could result in finding and returning more of those missing today. We’re not getting any younger.”