UNSETTLED MATTERS… The POW/MIA Issue.
by JAMES WEBB
This is the first in a series of articles for Veterans Journal covering the issue of American POWs and MIAs in Southeast Asia. This series is intended to educate and expose, and will hopefully bring you a better understanding of the questions surrounding the fate of our soldiers who were captured or otherwise went missing during the Vietnam War.
The POW/MIA Issue is investigated by the U.S. government as a humanitarian one. With my subsequent articles I hope to impart a sense of the ongoing significance of the POW/MIA Issue from an insider's perspective. I will cover topics ranging from the history of the Vietnam conflict as it pertains to the POW/MIA Issue to the U.S. and Vietnamese governments' actions in response to the Issue. Along the way I will expose some wrongs, ask you to decide for yourself whether the Issue was handled properly, and consider what can be done now.
Now let me introduce myself to you. I retired from the U.S. Army after twenty-four years of active service in special operations and intelligence. As a civilian I spent seven years as a government employee on the POW/MIA Issue. In total I served fourteen years (from 1989 to 2003) as the U.S. Government's Senior Investigative Team Commander and in other high-level positions for the POW/MIA Issue. I was also the deputy and acting commander Detachment One in Bangkok for the POW/MIA Issue, the acting commander of Det 2 in Hanoi, The Priority Case Investigation Team (PCIT) commander, the Archival Research Team (ART) commander, the Research Investigation Team (RIT) commander, the Senior Investigation Team commander, the Recovery Element Team commander, and Troop commander. I worked in the J-2 Directorate (Intel) and the J-3 Operations, was the Underwater Investigation Team commander, was the team commander on several missions to Cambodia, and much more. I also worked all the Refugee Camps in Asia. I am a Vietnam Veteran and in 2004 and 2005 worked in Iraq and around the Middle East with security operations.
While working the POW/MIA Issue I received the Army Achievement Medal, the Army Commendation Medal, two Joint Commendation Medals, two Defense Meritorious Service Medals, and numerous letters of commendation. All my evaluations were of the highest caliber. I was the recipient of several civilian awards including the Department of the Navy Civilian Meritorious Service Award, and when I departed the Issue in late 2003 I was awarded a $5,000.00 bonus. As you’ve likely guessed, I’ve spent a lot of time and personal energy considering what became of our Vietnam POWs/MIAs.
Now, the main question everyone asks about the POW/MIA Issue is, “Are there still live Americans being held in captivity in Southeast Asia?” My first thought is, “God I hope not.” I say this because I hate to consider what such prisoners would have endured and would be enduring now. But my experience as the U.S. government’s Senior Investigative Team Commander with full access to all our files forces me to concede that this is a real possibility. There are still too many unanswered questions from both the U.S. and Vietnamese governments.
On my last mission to Vietnam as a Team Commander in late 2003, we ended our operation in Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC), formerly and still called Saigon. My Vietnamese counterparts decided to throw a going away party for me. Well, the Vietnamese (once they feel comfortable around you) drink to get drunk, and they did that at my departure party. Two high-level Vietnamese officials took me aside and, laughing, said, “You never did find live Americans-even with all your efforts.” The way they said this to me made me believe that they still had live Americans. For this reason and many more to come in following articles I feel compelled to present the truth on the POW/MIA Issue and to explain why we should not abandon the prospect of live Americans still being held in Southeast Asia.
Now, during my twenty-four years in the Army it was always drummed into me that if you present a problem you should at least try to present a solution. So what is my recommendation for paying the POW/MIA Issue the respect it deserves? It is too late to change the systems already in place and we cannot go back in history to make corrections, so I recommend that the President of the United States now appoint a Presidential Independent Southeast Asian POW/MIA Review Board. This Board should be comprised of experts in the POW/MIA field but should stand outside governmental agencies. All members of the Board would be cleared to review classified material up to Top Secret. They would work at JPAC in Hawaii and with DPMO and DIA in Washington, D.C. The Board members’ primary task would be a complete review of each case of missing men from the war in Indochina. They would then categorize cases as appropriate and make recommendations for any further action. This would be a time-consuming operation, but dedicated Board members with the appropriate background could be trusted to make the right recommendations. Their report would be presented directly to the President.
Convening a Presidential Independent Review Board would be an effective way of making sure that the right people at the highest levels of government are adequately informed about the status of our POWs and MIAs.
For this column I want your feedback and comments. Send me any comment at [email protected] and check out my web site at www.powmiainsider.com. I don’t have all the answers but will do my best to find them for you.
You can slso get a FREE copy of my eBook POW/MIA History 101 at http://www.powmiainsider.com/