Led by the Trump administration, American POW/MIA insiders are surprised and pleased at the unprecedented progress made with Vietnam government officials on this issue that has lain dormant in the public eye in recent years. As the poet Elizabeth Browning wrote, let us count the ways.
After remaining reticent for nearly a year on the topic of finding, identifying and returning to America the remains of 1,601 Americans missing in Southeast Asia (SEA) from the Vietnam War, President Donald J. Trump spoke out on the issue at least twice while visiting Vietnam late last year following the Asia Pacific Economic Conference in Da Nang. He also traveled to Hanoi where he said,
Our decades-long joint humanitarian efforts with the Vietnamese people and government to account for and recover personnel still missing – so important to us – from the war, honors these horrors of this horrendous war. We want our service members’ support – and we give total support to the families, and we strengthen the foundation of our comprehensive partnership. That is so important to us.”
A few weeks after that historic trip, a U.S.-Russia Joint Commission on POW/MIA Affairs (USRJC) met in Russia on Nov. 8 for the 21st Plenum of the USRJC in Moscow at the Ministry of National Defense in their External Affairs facility. U.S. Co-Chairman General Robert “Doc” Foglesong, USAF (Ret), and Russian Co-Chairman General Colonel Valery Vostrotin led the talks.
It was the first time that the director of the DoD’s Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA) Kelly K. McKeague participated in the plenum as a U.S. commissioner. He was joined by two other U.S. Commissioners, Mr. Tim Shea, of the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), and Dr. Tim Nenninger, National Archives & Records Administration (NARA). After those successful meetings, McKeague told SOFREP that, “Relationships within the USRJC continue to strengthen, and the four working groups are forging increased cooperation to secure more tangible outcomes.”
DPAA European-Mediterranean Regional Director Col. Chris Forbes, USA, and Lt.Col. Maxim Alekseyev, Chief of the Russian Commission Support Office, Russian Embassy in Washington, D.C., were also in Russia setting up key future work group sessions, assisted by members of the DPAA Joint Commission Support Directorate. Additionally, invited to participate as observers were VFW Executive Director Bob Wallace and National League of POW/MIA Families CEO and Chairman of the Board of Directors Ann Mills-Griffiths, an MIA sister. McKeague stressed how important the support of veteran groups and families of American MIAs is to the overall POW/MIA mission – a message he echoed several times in San Diego Saturday during a DPAA Family Update meeting with families of American service members still missing in action.
Also, with little or no publicity, U.S. Navy Rear Adm. Jon Kreitz, DPAA deputy director, toured SEA last year and spent time in the field with DPAA recovery teams in Laos. Kreitz didn’t just go in and look around, he actually joined the recovery teams working on the ground as he assisted local villagers and DPAA staff at an excavation site in Xieng Khouang Province, in Lao People’s Democratic Republic in late November – a fact which impressed not only the indigenous people in Laos, but also DPAA staff members. During a DPAA Family Update in San Diego Saturday (Jan. 20), one insider noted how impressive Kreitz’s actions were in Laos: “How often do you see a rear admiral getting his hands dirty, working with team DPAA staff in the field, in the jungle?”
Earlier this month National League of POW/MIA Families CEO and Chairman of the Board of Directors Ann Mills-Griffiths — a sister of an MIA Vietnam War Navy pilot, and key League staff flew to SEA for a series of meetings with key government officials in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. In addition they traveled to Hanoi where they met with DPAA staff, U.S. Embassy staff, Stony Beach staff from DIA and U.S. Ambassador to Vietnam David J. Kritenbrink.
At the same time there was a parallel delegation in SEA led by retired Green Beret Mike Taylor, chairman of the joint Special Operations Association/Special Forces Association (SOA/SFA) POW/MIA Committee. Taylor and his wife traveled to many of the same locations League officials but didn’t attend some closed-door meetings between government and League officials. Taylor – a combat veteran who served in the secret war during the Vietnam War, met with men from the North Vietnamese Army who served in combat against American troops during the Vietnam War. Taylor and League personnel remain in SEA wrapping up several weeks of trips, meetings, and visits to DPAA teams deployed in the field.
Then, with little or no fanfare, other than the daily DoD announcements, Secretary of Defense James N. Mattis appeared in Vietnam where he expressed appreciation for Vietnam’s close support to the Defense Prisoner of War/Missing in Action Accounting Agency (DPAA) mission in Hanoi as it works to recover U.S. personnel missing from the war. In addition he met with his counterpart, Vietnamese Defense Minister Ngo Xuan Lich, which included honoring Vietnamese troops during a visit to Hanoi on Jan. 25. Also, on that day, he held a meeting with Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyễn Xuân Phúc in Hanoi. Mattis also took time to visit the Trấn Quốc Pagoda in Hanoi, which is the oldest pagoda in the city, originally constructed during the sixth century. In addition, he met with League officials in a closed-door meeting regarding the POW/MIA issue.
The Washington Post reported on Jan. 26 that Mattis visit included plans to finalize details on docking the nuclear-powered USS Carl Vinson aircraft carrier in Da Nang, which the Post termed as a “1,092-foot-long signal to China to rethink its aggressive expansion” in the South China Sea. The post quoted Mattis saying, “We recognize that relationships never stay the same. They either get stronger or they get weaker, and America wants a stronger relationship with a stronger Vietnam.”
In recent years China has claimed South China Sea as its own and has placed artificial islands bristling with radar and sophisticated radio intercept equipment and military equipment. In addition, the U.S. recently sold a Coast Guard cutter to Vietnam that communist officials said is the largest ship in its fleet. Last but not least, Mattis met with Communist Party General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong to thank him for Vietnam supporting U.N. sanctions against North Korea.
In an interview conducted in San Diego at the DPAA Family Update, DPAA Director said,
Our dedicated military and civilian professionals in Hanoi will be honored to host Secretary Mattis and delegations from the National League of POW/MIA Families and the joint SOA/SFA POW/MIA Committee. Both visits underscore the importance of our joint humanitarian efforts with the Vietnamese. They also are indicative of how decades of cooperation on the noble personnel accounting mission have contributed to stronger ties the U.S. and Vietnam are forging.”
This is the sixth visit to Vietnam by a United States Secretary of Defense and follows Defense Minister Lich’s official visit to Washington, D.C., in August 2017.
One Longtime POW/MIA veteran said the recent developments over the last three months represent an unprecedented, public effort to get the POW/MIA issue back in the public eye and to act upon Vietnam’s broadest efforts since the Vietnam to broaden the scope of MIA cases to be investigated in Vietnam since the Reagan administration’s efforts to find, identify and repatriate U.S. MIAs.
This long-time observer said,
For the president of the United States, the secretary of defense, family members from the League and a Green Beret veteran to meet with Vietnamese officials publicly within three months is an incredibly big deal. This sort of public focus in Vietnam, with high-ranking Vietnamese government and military officials and, meeting with North Vietnamese Army veterans means a lot to Vietnam, it creates bonds that heretofore didn’t exist while giving DPAA permission to conduct more digs and research, including in areas before prohibited to any U.S. personnel … years from now, this period of time will be looked upon as a landmark in POW/MIA issues.”
Editor’s note: if you would like to read more from John Stryker Meyer, check out his book “SOG Chronicles: Volume One” here on Amazon — there he sheds light on the untold stories of Green Berets behind enemy lines in Vietnam, conducting harrowing missions with little to no support.
Featured image: Defense Secretary James N. Mattis walks beside Vietnamese Defense Minister Ngo Xuan Lich as they review troops during a visit to Hanoi, Vietnam, Jan. 25, 2018. | DoD photo by Army Sgt. Amber I. Smith.