I wondered, had an MIA been able to share his thoughts, how would he have chosen to be remembered a generation after his death? By a $1 million excavation of a Vietnam hillside that might or might not produce a tooth or a bone? Or by the construction of, say, a hospital wing or school named in his honor? I called an economist at the World Bank in I lanoi and asked how much it would cost to build a rural school in Viet¬nam. He said $30,000 for a quality six-classroom school with a cement foundation and a life expectancy of thirty years. So the $1 million would build about thirty-five schools, and each, the economist said, could han¬dle an enrollment of 300-400 students. Maybe it would have been a tough call. But educating more than 300,000 students over three decades would have been an achievement to last a lifetime—and beyond.
FOG ROLLED IN OFF THE SOUTH CHINA SEA EARLY, and when I got to Hanoi’s Noi Bai Airport, just before lunch, a soft drizzle had damp¬ened the grass and shrouded the runway in mist. Parked off to one side, away from the passenger terminal, was a IJ.S. Air Force C-141 Starlifter, its jawlike rear cargo door open. Seven empty aluminum caskets—the same type that took home so many thousands of Americans from the war—rested on wooden supports nearby.
When the first remains of Americans were repatriated, Vietnamese of¬ficials would not allow their caskets to be draped with the American flag. So, until 1993, a folded flag was placed on each casket. (In neighboring Laos, where Americans from the Vietnam War were also listed as miss¬ing, the communist government initially insisted remains be carried away in ordinary suitcases, the occasion accompanied by neither ceremony nor publicity.)
The seven Americans who were to leave Vietnam this day at the end of a thirty-year journey were publicly unidentified, but their families had been notified the remains were presumably those of their loved ones. Had they lived, most would have been about my age. What would they have made of their lives had they been lucky and survived? The men’s names had been engraved on the black marble Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington long ago, each marked by a cross to signify missing in action. Once the Army’s Central Identification Laboratory in Hawaii had posi-tively ID’d them—a process that could take from a few months to years— the cross by their names would be changed to a star.
An unfurled American flag covered each of the caskets, and an eleven- person honor guard, newly arrived on the C-141 from Hawaii, stood at parade rest. A handful of journalists, both American and Vietnamese, milled about. Off to one side, the official U.S. delegation had gathered: Ambassador Peterson, the former POW, with several top diplomats from the embassy; Senator John Kerry, a naval officer in the Mekong Delta during the war; members of the Vietnam Veterans of America, led by Tom Cory, confined to a wheelchair as a result of being shot in the neck in Quang Tri Province, who had returned to Vietnam with old maps, videotapes, and photographs he hoped would help Vietnamese families find their MIAs. “We’ve been talking with the Vietnamese from the be¬ginning about building trust, and this builds trust,” Cory said. “As Amer¬ican vets who are committed to families of MIAs, if we didn’t follow through on this and bring the families the information we have, we wouldn’t be fulfilling our duties as vets.”
On the tarmac, the remains of the seven Americans rested in num¬bered wooden containers, each hardly bigger than a shoe box. A Viet¬namese customs official pried loose each top with a screwdriver and in¬spected the contents—mostly bones and teeth—before signing the papers that gave Lieutenant Colonel John Kelly, commander of the MIA task force, possession of the “shipment for export.” The honor guard placed each of the wooden boxes in one of the caskets, which, one by one, were carried into the plane’s cargo hold, accompanied by military members of the guard and the civilian Vietnam vets.
The plane’s cargo door swung shut, and moments later the giant C-141 thundered down the runway on the outskirts of a city the repatriated Americans had known only as the enemy capital. It lifted off and soon disappeared in the cloud-covered skies of Hanoi’s winter morning. John Kerry said quietly to no one in particular: “Thirty years and home at last.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *