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“…..We're here simply to do the right thing. And it is important not to compound the judgment that was exercised during the 1960's by avoiding a better judgment and our responsibility today. We can't bring anybody back to life. We can't make up for the extraordinary suffering or for the torture or for the years of having turned away from these fighters. But we can honor their service, and we can make it clear to those who wish to join us in the struggle for freedom and democracy in the future, that we are a country big enough to admit mistakes, and strong enough to understand our clear sense of responsibility and duty and to move to rectify mistakes when they are made. And that while sometimes individuals may make a mistake, as a country, we are a people with extraordinary generosity, a great country, that will always honor and thank those who fight with us in common cause.“
US Senator John Kerry June 19/1996
ABANDONED BY THE UNITED STATES, FORMER SOUTH VIETNAMESE COMMANDOS RISE FROM THE DEAD
On a moonlit night in May 1965, a large transport plane was flying low through the skies of northwestern North Vietnam on its way toward the town of Son La. Sitting nervously in the back of the plane was Team Horse, a group of five South Vietnamese commandos who were part of a covert CIA/Department of Defense (DOD) plan known as Operation Plan 34-Alpha (Oplan-34A). Team Horse was being parachuted in to reinforce the eight members of Team Easy, who had been deployed there in August 1963.
After making a first pass by the drop zone to release crates of supplies and a homing beacon, the plane circled around again and Team Horse parachuted out the back. Soon after hitting the ground the commandos knew their mission was a total bust. Soldiers from North Vietnam's Ministry of Public Security were waiting for them with rifles in hand. Even worse, Team Easy had been captured long ago, and the North Vietnamese had used that team's radio equipment to lure in Team Horse
The five commandos were tried and convicted of treason, and sent to prison. Only one, team leader Quach Nhung, would survive incarceration. After more than 20 years of hard labor in a Vietnamese prison, Nhung was released and immigrated to the United States in 1994. He is one of about 30 former South Vietnamese commandos involved in Oplan-34A who now live in the Atlanta metro area.
Recently declassified documents have revealed Oplan-34A to be one of the most tragic and disturbing aspects of the Vietnam War. `When you read those documents, you want to cry,' says Sedgwick Tourison, who used many of the papers to write Secret Army, Secret War--Washington's Tragic Spy Operation in North Vietnam. `It's disgusting. We sold [those commandos] down the river and walked away, and we did it with such clean hands. And as I put in the book, nobody thought this would ever surface.'
Even Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, was shocked by the abuses. In a recent hearing on Capitol Hill, Specter said, `This is a genuinely incredible story of callous, inhumane, and really barbaric treatment by the United States.'
A DOOMED OPERATION
From 1961 through the end of the decade, approximately 500 commandos separated into 52 small teams were sent into North Vietnam. Trained and funded first by the CIA, the operation was taken over by the DOD in 1964. At first, the teams were designed to gather intelligence, but their duties were later augmented to include psychological warfare and sabotage. Nearly of the commandos were either killed or captured almost immediately by the North Vietnamese, who had heavily infiltrated the operation with moles on the South Vietnamese side.
The entire operation was a failure, and documents now show that the CIA and the DOD knew that it was. Still, they continued to send commandos to their almost certain doom.
The United States' betrayal of the South Vietnamese commandos did not end there.
Once they had been captured, their families were notified not that they were prisoners of war or missing in action, but that they were dead. `The Defense Department compounded that tragedy by simply writing off the lost commandos,' Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) said during the recent Senate hearing. `Drawing a line through their names as dead apparently in order to avoid paying monthly salaries [to the families].'
Says Tourison, who is the former Chief of Analysis in the Defense Intelligence Agency's office of POW/MIA affairs. `It was money more than anything else. The bottom line was that we did not want to pay them any more. We were recruiting new guys and telling them that if anything happens we'll take care of you, and we never had any intention of doing that. And because of the moles the North Vietnamese had on the inside, they knew what we had done. And once they found out, that sent a message to Hanoi that we viewed the lives of those who serve for us as of no consequence.'
But the betrayal of the South Vietnamese commandos still did not end there.
Even though the United States knew many of them were in prison, nothing was ever done to get them out. As Kerry, himself a Vietnam War veteran, said at the hearing, `After sending these brave men, on what by anyone's judgment were next to suicide missions, and after cutting off their pay, we then committed the most egregious error of all: We made no effort to obtain their release along with American POWs during the peace negotiations in Paris [in 1973]. As a result, many of these brave men who fought alongside us for the same cause spent years in prison, more than 20 years in some cases.'
The U.S. government is now trying to make up for its treatment of the commandos. On June 19, the Senate unanimously passed a bill that will pay the former commandos or their survivors $40,000 each, which basically amounts to an average of $2,000 back pay per year for an average of 20 years spent in prison.
Even though the commandos need the money and say they are looking forward to it, money cannot erase the past. `Forty thousand dollars is nothing,' says Nhung. `No money can pay for my life.'
COMING TO AMERICA
Recently, three of the former South Vietnamese Oplan-34A commandos now living in the Atlanta area sit down to talk about their life during wartime and what moving to America has meant for them.
The site is the living room of a cramped apartment in an ersatz Colonial complex on a predominantly Asian stretch of Buford Highway just across the street from the Little Saigon strip mall. A group of happy, boisterous kids play on the landing. A strong odor of simmering soup rolls in from the kitchen.
Sitting around the table are Nhung, 52; Team Greco deputy commander Quash Rang, 58; and Team Pegasus leader Than Van Kinh, 67. Acting as interpreter is Ha Van Son, who had been part of a similar operation, Oplan-35. Son was imprisoned for 19 years and was also declared dead to his family by the United States. Members of his operation are also being considered for compensation in the Senate bill.
The men smoke almost constantly and emit a feeling of haggard world--weariness. They are all dressed similarly, in Oxford shirts and polyester slacks, and each has salt-and-pepper hair slicked down and parted to the side. When asked why they joined on with Oplan-34A, the answer comes quickly and not without some measure of incredulity.
`Because everybody wanted to fight against the communists,' says Son, speaking for the group `Nobody fight with any other reason.
Tourison's book is filled with wrenching stories of commandos being starved and tortured while in prison, and the experiences of these men were equally brutal. `All of us were treated very, very badly,' says Son. `All of us were shackled and put in a small cell for a long time. After that they take us to a big room where we concentrate with everybody. But they give us only a little of rice a day. Sometime no rice, but yellow corn. But the corn that's used for animals, not for man.'
Even today, many of the commandos still suffer physically from their time spent in North Vietnamese prisons. `When we got tortured, everybody has a problem in their body,' comments Son. `Like Than Van Kinh, all his teeth was broken out.' With that cue, Kinh opens his mouth wide and taps his dentures with a finger. `And my leg sometimes is paralyzed. Everybody is like that in the winter. Sometimes we get pain and hurt in the knee and in the body. You see the outside is good [i.e., they look fine from the outside], but inside sometimes from the fall to winter, if the weather changes, everybody gets pain.'
When they were released from prison, their lives improved little. Because they were branded as traitors in Vietnam, it was hard to get work. `It was very, very difficult because when we go to apply for a job in Vietnam, the Vietnamese communists check and they know that this was a spy commando,' says Son. `So that everybody has to go to work as a farmer, and some drive a three-wheeled motorcycle in Saigon.'
Tourison maintains that U.S. policy toward the commandos has ruined more than just their own lives. `In Vietnam, they are largely excluded from all legal forms of employment,' he explains. `Because of that, the children normally have to cut their education short to engage in child labor to support their parents. We have visited the sins on three generations. The older couples, their children, and their grandchildren.'
In Atlanta, some of the commandos are retired, but most are employed in various jobs. For example, Nhung works in a factory that manufacturers containers, Son is a sales and leasing consultant at an auto dealership, and Rang and his wife own a beauty salon in Duluth--aptly named American Nails.
Remarkably, the commandos harbor less anger toward the United States than one might expect. `My friend Quach Nhung say, everybody still have a little anger with the leaders who betrayed us, but we know that they are not the representatives of U.S. government right now, they are not the American people,' says Son, speaking for his comrade. `Of course, everybody get angry, but we have to talk with the American people and the American government to [let them] know about the facts of history. We think we have to fight for justice.'
Son has been informed that the commandos should receive their back pay from the United States in about 18 months. When they receive those funds, the commandos plan to pool their resources. `In Atlanta, we have about 30 commandos,' explains Son. `[We] will establish a joint venture corporation and maybe we will do a business like a Vietnamese market and everybody will work for our company, every commando and their family. And we think that corporation may develop for the commandos' children's future and take care of the old.'
By combining the money they will get from the U.S. government, the commandos will have a substantial amount to work with. However, Son admits that when Americans learn what happened to them and how much the government is planning on compensating the commandos, many of them are appalled. `American people, they say, you are worth $4 million, not $40,000,' says Son. `That's very cheap. It's a little bit.'
LET'S SCREW THEM AGAIN
Even though life seems to be on the upswing for the commandos, there are still a few snags. Some of the commandos, including Than Van Kinh, have had problems bringing their families to this country. His wife and son have been denied entrance.
`His wife was denied with no reason,' says Son, translating Kinh's words. `We were very surprised because his wife was waiting for him from the time he was captured in North Vietnam.'
Tourison also expresses exasperation that Kinh's wife was denied immigration. `Over the last 35 years, Than Van Kinh has spent maybe five or six years with his wife out of all of his adult life,' he says. `This is a woman who worships the ground this guy walks on. They've been married since the 1950s, and these sons of bitches [in the Immigration and Naturalization Service], with a stroke of the pen say, `Well we just don't believe she's your wife.' What are you going to do at that point? That's just so damn cruel.'
There are also some 70 former still in Vietnam, some of whom have found getting less than easy.
`This is a relatively small community of people who paid a higher price than anyone who served us during the war,' says Tourison. `Unfortunately, the State Department and the INS give them absolutely no priority. What that means is that when they submit papers to the embassy in Bangkok applying to depart Vietnam or they get a request for more documents, it can take six months to a year until someone acts on it. And you know what happens?
`They die. I have gotten letters from commandos, and then six months later while they are waiting for an answer from the embassy in Bangkok, they die. It tears me apart every damn time that happens because it is so fundamentally wrong and so fundamentally counter to our own values. They were first in prison, last out, and let's screw them again.'
As the former commandos wait for their payment from the United States, as they wait for other comrades and stranded family members to join them, they say they are enjoying their lives in America but have not forgotten their homeland. `Of course we miss Vietnam,' says Son. `And everybody, except Mr. Kinh, who is too old, every commando thinks if we get a start on an organization, if we have weapons and we have [money], we want to go back to Vietnam to fight with the communists again.
`My friend Quach Nhung, he say, of course now I like it in America, it is better than in Vietnam, but because we have sacrificed for our country and for freedom, we did not like to see the Vietnamese communists take over. We want Vietnam to be a country with freedom, human rights, and democracy.'
Despite Authorization, DoD Fails To Pay Vietnamese Commandos
Los Angeles Times
The Pentagon has failed to pay restitution to a group of Vietnamese commandos who were left behind in prison camps at the end of the war, despite legislation authorizing it to do so.
Congress approved the legislation last year to compensate a group of about 280 former commandos who had taken part in U.S. spy missions during the Vietnam War.
The former commandos were captured in the 1960s and left behind at the war's end, when most other prisoners of war were freed.
Secret documents released last year at the request of the Los Angeles Times showed that the U.S. government had sometimes declared the men dead, even though government agencies had intelligence reports that they were alive and being held in North Vietnamese camps or prisons.
"This conduct is criminal," said Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa.
By a unanimous vote, the Senate authorized the Pentagon to pay the men $40,000 each for the time they spent in prison. But Pentagon spokesman Susan Hansen said the Defense Department believed it could not pay the men, because the language in the bill was unclear.
"We need to ask Congress to clarify the language," Hansen said. "We want to move forward."
Copyright 1997,96, The Tech. All rights reserved.
This story was published on April 4, 1997.
Volume 117, Number 16.
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