The Returning Casualty Blog

A Project of the Vietnamese American Foundation

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ARVN Remains Discovered

Recently in HCMC, a construction crew uncovered the remains of 81 ARVN soldiers. The crew is building the new HCM Transportation University at the site of the abandoned Quang Trung National Recruit Training Center of the Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam). The construction crew quickly notified VAF of the find.

The remains were scattered throughout the area, indicating that the soldiers died in a firefight defending Saigon against North Vietnamese Army forces. Thirty-six of the soldiers still wore their ID tags. The ID tags of 6 of the soldiers are burnt and bent, suggesting that they died in an artillery barrage.

VAF recovered the remains with proper ceremonial honors. Then they took the remains to a temple to be attended until retrieved by family members. The following soldiers are identified by their ID tags. If you believe that one of the soldiers is your relative, please contact VAF for information.

Cao, Van Tinh
Tran, Van Sang
Nguyen, Van Quoi
Nguyen, Van Chuc
Tran, Dinh Dang
Bình Dinh
Pham, Van Thang
Ngo, Van Duc
Le, Thanh Cong
Dao, Xuan Sinh
Nguyen, Tang Dao
Bui, Van Quang
Huynh, Van Khoe
Kieu, Gia Long
Nguyen, Van Hai
Van Lam
Le, Van Manh
Lam, Van Ho
Trang, Van Quan
Tran, Van Ban
Do, Van Dung
Tran, Van Tham
Le, Van Trai
Nguyen, Dinh Hien
Pham Dinh
Nguyen, Van Cat
Tran, Huu Duyen
Bui, Hoang Sam
Pham, Van Muoi
Le, Xuan Quang
Vu, Van BaoVu
Nguyen, Van Hung
Nguyen, Van Tuan
Nguyen, Van Ma
Nguyen, Van Lua

Lang Da DNA Analysis Completed

After months of painstaking analysis, University of North Texas Center for Human Identification (UNTCHI) reported that the DNA lab had completed its analysis of DNA samples taken from the Lang Da camp gravesite. Of the twelve individuals recovered, eleven yielded viable DNA results. We were thrilled to hear the news, because soils in North Vietnam can be acidic, breaking down DNA at an accelerated rate.

Family members still living in Vietnam provided comparative DNA samples. As you can imagine, security of the comparative samples is important to be certain that matching remains will be reunited with the correct families. To this end, with the cooperation of the U. S. Department of State, TRC arranged for family sample collection at the U. S. Consulate in Saigon (HCMC).

First TRC sent sealed DNA collection kits to the Consulate, and notified family members of the time and date for their appointments to provide samples. The families then traveled to Saigon at the appointed time. The Consulate’s Fraud Prevention Manager confirmed identities; but the samples actually were collected by a technician from the International Organization for Migration. The technician sealed and marked the samples separately, and the Fraud Prevention Manager sent the samples by Fed Ex directly to the UNTCHI lab in Texas.

This month TRC’s President Mr. Thanh and TRC’s General Counsel Mr. Coddou met with Art Eisenberg, Co-Director of UNTICHI to discuss current TRC recovery operations. They also discussed future collaboration in Vietnam between Vietnamese American Foundation (VAF…TRC’s parent foundation) and DNA-ProKids (www.dna-prokids.org). After meeting with Dr. Eisenberg, Mr. Thanh and Mr. Coddou met with the UHR team, for a presentation of lab processes and data. They also took a fascinating tour of the lab.

At day’s end, the remains and gravesite relics carefully were loaded into TRC’s van for transport back to Houston, Texas. In Houston, the remains are kept in a Buddhist temple until they can be returned to Vietnam. Now that TRC and its families have experienced the process of DNA collection and analysis, this part of our operations will run smoothly.

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How are we organized?

Some of our supporters have asked about the organization of our Foundation. Here’s the short story.

We have a Board of Directors, and each Director is Vietnamese American. The board formally meets each month; but also meets weekly to discuss events. VAF has a President & Treasurer and a Vice-President & Secretary and a General Counsel. Our financial records are audited annually.

We model our organization on the Better Business Bureau Standards for Charity Accountability. VAF is listed with Guidestar (guidestar.org). Also VAF is listed with Dun & Bradstreet. VAF’s online donations are processed by Network for Good (networkforgood.org). VAF is registered with USAID as a private voluntary organization (PVO), authorizing VAF to apply for and receive USAID funds.

VAF has an advisory panel called Family Casualty Group comprised of family members of those who died in the camps. The group is advisory only, with no administrative or managerial role. Their opinion is important to VAF for such issues as the handling, care and disposition of the remains.

VAF has an understanding with Cranfield University in the U.K. to provide field archeologists. VAF has discussed the possibility of cooperating with the Inforce Foundation to recover the remains. (Inforce managed the recovery of remains following the Kosovo campaign).

VAF has an understanding with the University of North Texas Center for Human Identification to perform DNA and kinship analyses. Last week we met with the director and staff to affirm continued cooperation.

TRC travels to Vietnam to excavate graves at Lang Da

On July 19th, we have a busy day in Hanoi. At nine o’clock, we meet with the U. S. Embassy officials. At lunchtime, we meet with a journalist from Associate Press. In the afternoon, we think we’ll meet with an officer from the Vietnamese Ministry of Foreign Affairs (although our meeting is not confirmed). Of course, the topic of conversation will be a small cemetery, across Thac Ba lake, outside the village of Lang Da. The lake is a beautiful sight, and the VNG intends that it become an ecological tourist destination, a modern idea found in a country determined maintain relevance in a competitive world.

Several decades ago, Lang Da was not such a welcoming sight for the men who occupied the reeducation camp in the forest. Twenty-seven men died in the camp while it was in operation, most likely from hardship and disease. At TRC, we don’t dwell on notions like justification or accountability for the camp. We come for the twenty-seven buried at the camp who want to go home.

TRC has this opportunity by permission of the VNG. The government is allowing TRC to recover all the remains, and to take DNA samples to match the remains with their families. Regardless of what may have happened at Lang Da in the past decades, today Vietnam demonstrates that it belongs in this modern world among nations who also have faced their difficult pasts. TRC recognizes the cooperation of the VNG at Lang Da, and we hope that the cooperation continues as TRC seeks the remains at other camps.

How do we identify the remains?

Many of you have asked how TRC identifies the remains of those buried in the reeducation camps. The techniques TRC uses at the sites are identical to the techniques used by archeologists at ancient burial sites. TRC’s Archeological Consultant, Julie Martin, is expert in excavation of ancient cemeteries with twenty years experience. The task is not easy. The process begins before TRC enters the site of burial. As you can see in our website gallery, first TRC relies on maps, cemetery plots and in some cases lists of the dead.

At the site, TRC often finds grave markers cut by prisoners at the camps at the time the person died. Sometimes the gravestone actually includes information about the home of the deceased. Even broken head stones are helpful. In one case, we found a broken gravestone lying in the jungle overgrowth. Carved in it was the name of the person we sought! Our team then searched the cemetery plats and found the base that matched to broken stone.

When we find the grave, and exhume the remains, we look for personal items buried with the person. Once we found a man’s food bowl buried with him. In another grave we actually found a makeshift wallet.

Earlier this year, for the first time, the Vietnamese government gave TRC permission to excavate an entire cemetery site. (In the past TRC has recovered individual sets of remains when asked to do so by family members.) The cemetery at Lang Da is threatened by a plan to construct a road through the site. The Vietnamese government recognizes TRC’s concern for the remains, if not recovered in an orderly fashion. Lang Da is a difficult site, because there are no grave markers, but TRC has the cemetery plat. Julie, our Archeological Consultant, will be onsite to direct the excavation. First, she has to find the plat on the ground. To do so, the team has to scalp the site. After all these years, the original grave cuts can be seen after the site is scalped. Julie has used the same techniques at other sites over a thousand years old. Once the team locates the graves, then the digging begins.

We thank our partners in DNA analysis

At the Lang Da camp cemetery, TRC faces a new challenge. Six families have come forth to recover remains of their loved ones at the camp, but there are no grave markers. To complicate the matter, there are over twenty graves. How can the families know which remains belong to a particular family? The solution is DNA analysis: recover all the remains located at the site, and test for matching DNA. The families have already provided their own DNA samples for analysis.

Many professionals have helped TRC in its mission, and the DNA analysts have been among the most supportive. Some of the best in the nation have come forth to assist. TRC’s first door opened at Family Tree DNA, a Houston based service that uses state of the art DNA technology to discover the ancestry of its clients (See the website www.familytreedna.com for interesting information about DNA technology, including an interview with BBC.).

The company’s President and CEO, Bennett Greenspan, promptly replied to TRC’s request for assistance. Mr. Greenspan and TRC’s General Counsel, Wesley S. Coddou, spoke at length about the process of DNA analysis, and in particular, the importance of careful handling of the DNA samples taken from the remains. Mr. Greenspan alerted TRC to the problem of cross contamination of DNA. He warned that cross contamination can be caused by something as simple as a bead of sweat transferred to the bone. Mr. Greenspan makes himself available to TRC for additional advice, for which TRC is grateful.

Mr. Greenspan was also kind enough to introduce Mr. Coddou to Megan Smolenyak, an eminent genealogist, author, researcher and contributor to the PBS series Ancestors. She has been Chief Family Historian and spokesperson for Ancestry.com, the largest genealogical company in the world, creator of RootsTelevision.com, a pioneering online channel of free videos and winner of four Telly Awards, and founder of UnclaimedPersons.org, a volunteer group that assists coroners and medical examiners. Visit Ms. Smolenyak’s website at www.honoringourancestors.com to read about her tireless work in the genealogical field. Ms. Smolenyak also quickly responded to TRC’s request for assistance, and gave Mr. Coddou insight as to the recovery and study of remains in the context of armed conflict and social unrest (she has provided forensic consulting services to the U.S. Army to locate thousands of family members of soldiers still unaccounted for from WWI, WWII, Korea and Southeast Asia). Ms. Smolenyak also makes time in her schedule to consult with TRC.

TRC now works with the University of North Texas Center for Human Identification, Forensic Division (www.unthumanid.org). The Center is providing all DNA testing and analysis for the remains recovered at Lang Da. The Center is an extraordinary group of facilities dedicated to the identification of missing persons and the confirmation of identity of others (as in paternity cases). The Center’s laboratories support law enforcement agencies, but also humanitarian initiatives like TRC. Another important initiative supported by the Center is the mission to identify and recover children taken or sold against their will. It’s a challenge that crosses all borders in developed and underdeveloped countries alike. TRC hopes to assist the mission through its contacts in Vietnam. The cooperation between the Center and TRC to identify the remains at Lang Da and to expand the search for the children is a good example of how important initiatives can network their resources for the advancement of both.

TRC takes this opportunity again to thank Family Tree DNA, Megan Smolenyak and the North Texas University Center for Human Identification for their support and guidance.

A year of work behind us, with many accomplishments

Many of you have asked why we have not reported our progress for several months. This was our thinking. Although TRC is strictly a humanitarian initiative, our mission can have unintended political consequences, if not handled thoughtfully and with respect for the governments affected. Of course, since 2006, TRC’s Founder, Thanh Dac Nguyen, has engaged the Vietnamese government in discussions about the recovery of the remains. Mr. Nguyen’s first opportunity to speak to the VNG came while he attended a conference in Vietnam with a group of American lawyers. Eventually he earned the trust of important officials in the VNG, and gained permission to search parts of the country for individual sets of remains in behalf of families who sought his assistance. Mr. Nguyen enjoyed success, and as his success preceded him, he made more trips to Vietnam. As TRC’s star rose, the initiative picked up momentum. We saw a real possibility that we could be an instrument of reconciliation. We believed that if reconciliation were a possible outcome of TRC’s work, then it would be wise to engage the VNG and the U. S government at the diplomatic level. TRC did not want to step on the wrong toes, and certainly we did not want to say anything to offend. We didn’t want to say or do anything publicly, without a better view of the big picture.

TRC’s General Counsel, Wesley S. Coddou, first contacted the U.S. Embassy in Hanoi to arrange a meeting between Embassy officials and Mr. Nguyen. The meeting went well, and later officials requested a summary proposal of TRC’s objective in Vietnam, prepared by Mr. Coddou, and approved and signed by Mr. Nguyen. After reviewing TRC’s proposal, the officials concluded that the initiative was valuable, and forwarded the proposal to Washington D. C. for further review. Not long afterward, a U.S. Senator visited Hanoi and officials briefly discussed the proposal with him. The Senator then suggested that TRC contact his staff. Mr. Coddou did and in September 2009, Mr. Coddou and Mr. Nguyen traveled to Washington D. C. for meetings with the U.S. Department of State, the Senator, and officials at the Vietnamese Embassy in Washington. Those meetings brought forth advice and insight that kicked TRC into high gear. Today, TRC maintains contact with both governments, and both governments want TRC to succeed.

We would like to take this opportunity to thank the governments of both countries for opening the way for our work.

TRC on YouTube and Facebook

In April, we continued to expand our presence on the web through YouTube and Facebook.  Through these networking sites, we’ll be able to reach more people and connect you all more intimately with the inner workings of our project and the people involved.

On our YouTube channel, TheReturningCasualty, you’ll find brief video excerpts from our recovery missions in Vietnam.  Once we get our video footage translated, we’ll be able to post trip commentaries, interviews, and more in depth films of the process.  Click here to view our YouTube channel.

If you’re on Facebook, click here to see our newly launched Facebook page.  Become a fan and share the page with your friends. Doing so will help us spread our message to a larger community. As a fan, you’ll also be first to know about upcoming events, new blog entries, and new photo and video uploads.  Check it out now.

You can see one of our short YouTube videos below. Be sure to follow the links above to see more. Thank you for your continued support.

Updates from Vietnam March 2009

A tombstone is discovered

Recording a tombstone discovered at Lang Da

Today, the TRC envoy returns from Vietnam. We received these updates and look forward to sharing more details on the success of the trip.

While overseas, the families of Major Duc Minh Hua, Captain Minh Van Nguyen, Police Sergeant Major Sau Van Duong, and Captain Vu Van Phu were able to collect their relative’s remains. The wife of Captain Hai Van Doan was ill in Saigon and unable to make the trip to Yen Bai to collect her husband’s remains as intended, so she will try again later. A TRC employee, while making his final checks at Cay Khe Hill before the families arrived, discovered that the tombstone of Lieutenant Colonel Tang Duy Nguyen had been removed. The family was advised and is waiting for more information before they travel to the site. Finally, the wife of Captain Son Hong Dang was unable to collect enough money to make the trip to Vietnam, and with our tight budget, we were unable to support her. When we have raised enough money, we will try again. If you wish to assist Ms. Dang with a donation, please click on the new “Donate Now” button at the top of the sidebar to the left.

We are still waiting on a permit to examine the graves found in Thanh Hoa and Nam Ha. Instead, the envoy took the opportunity to explore Lang Da village, where they discovered 20 more graves.

More updates to follow. Until then, please visit the updated gallery to view some new photos from 2009.

In March, TRC continues work in Vietnam

In Bien Hoa, 2008

In Bien Hoa, 2008

At the end of February, TRC will once again return to Vietnam to retrieve remains and honor those who perished in the post-war Vietnamese reeducation camps.

On this trip, the families of Captain Hai Van Doan, Captain Vu Van Phu, Captain Son Hong Dang, Captain Minh Van Nguyen, and Lieutenant Colonel Tang Duy Nguyen will finally visit their relative’s final resting place and honor him with a proper burial.

Much work lies ahead. While we have uncovered many isolated camp burial grounds, we need the local Vietnamese officials to provide us with the burial records so that we may identify unmarked and illegible graves. With this information, we will announce the names of those discovered over the radio to the Vietnamese and Vietnamese-Americans who have long lived without knowledge of their relative’s location and assist those who come forward with the recovery process. We are in the process of obtaining permits and letters of introduction to procure this vital information.

We will also continue to meet with US officials at Embassy and Consulate General to garner their assistance in obtaining information and permits from the Vietnamese government. We will continue to push the Chief of the Binh Duong Province for a permit to properly bury the remains of South Vietnamese soldiers discovered in a mass grave in Bien Hoa in the Bien Hoa cemetery (renamed Binh An in 2007).

Of the reeducation camps we have located, a site in Thanh Hoa province has proved the most overwhelming, with an estimated total of 150 graves. We have also uncovered a great number in Ha Nam province.

In the future, we hope to see the establishment of a national military cemetery in Vietnam honoring the fallen ARVN soldiers. A nation cannot deny its history and can only move forward once it recognizes the humanity of all of its citizens. Whether they came from the North or South, they were all Vietnamese who sacrificed their lives for their country.

Mission

The mission of The Returning Casualty is to bring closure and peace to the South Vietnamese people who lost relatives in the post-war re-education camps by helping them locate and recover the remains of their loved ones.

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