Vietnam...for more than thirty-years the very mention of this
foreign country conjured up images of canopied jungles, wild animals,
rice patties, and thousands of Asian's in black pajamas and pointed
grass hats. Now, at last, I have been to Vietnam, I have walked
unafraid where many brave men died in battle. I have stood on the very
ground where my lost brother was last seen alive. And still, I ask
myself, "Why?" Since I cannot answer my own question, I will
simply tell you of my experiences while "in-country".
I've always wanted to travel to Vietnam, ever since Jerry was listed
as missing-in-action (MIA) on January 21, 1968. When I learned in
September of '98 that a Joint Task Force (JTF) team would be
investigating case number 1000 in May or June of 1999, I knew the time
had come. The preparations for the trip were extremely difficult due
to lack of information regarding exact dates, passports, visas, and
travel arrangements. While surfing the web I had also learned that
information and/or remains were to be turned over to U.S. officials by
the Vietnamese at a ceremony on May 4, and I definitely wanted to
attend this meaningful event, possibly even learning something of
Mike Teutschman, an Army buddy of Jerry's, agreed to travel with
me to Vietnam for the ceremony and to return to the Old French Fort
near Khe Sanh, the helicopter crash site where the JTF team would look
for remains. Mike and Jerry had trained together as Pathfinders,
traveled, and served in Vietnam with Jerry. He had found me in 1993
through the Friends of the Wall in Washington, D.C. after discovering
that Jerry was listed on The Vietnam Wall as MIA, not KIA, as he had
been told post-incident. If they gave a Bronze Star for friendship,
this man deserves the honor.
On Saturday, May 1, 1999, I was finally actually on an airplane
leaving Little Rock, Arkansas, bound towards Vietnam. I spent two days
in the air and hanging out in airports before arriving in Ho Chi Minh
City. I struggled through customs and immigration and was greatly
relieved to see a smiling young Vietnamese man with a sign that had my
name on it. I was a lot less happy when he handed me a note informing
me that his office had determined that the MIA Ceremony that I wanted
to attend was being held in Hanoi the very next morning, and
admittance was still in question. "Where is the American
Consulate?" I asked, "Take me there now."
Vietnam is something you have to experience to appreciate. I found
it best to hide behind the guide or driver in the back seat and just
not look. Hundreds of people on motor scooters, bicycles, and cars are
weaving in and out of congested somewhat marked lanes. You wait in
dreaded anticipation to look up and see a mangled body draped over a
side mirror. Entire families travel together on one motorbike, as well
as household goods and animals. Crossing a street is an adventure
I can only imagine what crossed the minds of the travelers who
passed the frazzled American woman with untamed hair in one hand and a
clenched note in the other hand, standing in front of the official
building while guards tried to chase her away. At last an English
speaking lady ventured down the stairs and outside to where I planned
to wait patiently until I got some answers. I was never allowed entry,
but eventually she returned with the information I needed and the good
news that Mike and I would be permitted to attend the MIA Ceremony in
Hanoi---getting there was our problem.
I caught up with Mike
at The Rex Hotel later in the day. He was busy trying to track
down his lost luggage and the idea of getting back on a plane to Hanoi
didn't spark a smile, but we made travel arrangements for the next
morning. The Rex is
quite a place, no wonder the CIA made it headquarters during the
war. The interior is very lavish and handcrafted artwork decorates
every corner, even the ceilings. Traditional dress is very colorful
and the uniform of the day for all the staff, from the business center
personnel to the valets. But once you step out of the hotel into the
teaming street life of Saigon, everything changes in an instant.
As the yellow silk-clad guard opened the glass hotel doors, he
bowed slightly, and it would not have been difficult to pretend I was
royalty. But down the few steps to the sidewalk an entirely different
experience waited, the beggars. I had been forewarned, but it is
impossible to ignore these people, especially the children.
"Madam, madam," the little brown face implored, "please
give me some money so I can eat." You want to put something in
every hand that is extended towards you, but there are so many, and if
you give to one, the crowd quickly multiplies. As
Mike and I explored the streets around the hotel, I saw homeless
people asleep on sidewalks. I thought to myself, "Isn't socialism
supposed to be about making sure everyone is treated equal?"
I replaced my lost hairbrush in the first shop we visited, but
Mike was not so lucky in finding clothing his size to replace his
luggage. A few shops carried shirts large enough, but pants were going
to be a real problem. And I never did quite get the dollar to dong
thing worked out. He was worried about traveling into the boonies of
Vietnam with just the clothes on his back. Actually, he was lucky to
have anything when he left the country, the children honed in on the
fact that he was an easy touch real quick. Our final solution was to
have the hotel wash the clothes he had on and hope his luggage would
be found by the time we returned from the MIA ceremony in Hanoi the
We boarded an early morning plane to Hanoi the morning of May 4th with
expectations of a big, well-attended propaganda event where the
Vietnamese officials would turn over information and/or remains to US
officials. As we flew
into Hanoi heavy rain began to fall with strong winds, and we
weren't allowed off the plane to board the terminal bus for about 20
minutes. We began to get anxious because the ceremony was scheduled
for 10:00 am and we were cutting it close as it was. Finally inside
the terminal, we looked in vain for the VIP lounge our contact
person was to meet us at. We also discovered that Vietnam does not
have an abundance of payphones. The procedure is to go to the closest
post office and they make the call and collect the charges.
I kept calling the JTF Det-2 office trying to get information
and they kept telling me to "go to the new building next to the
airport." I attempted to approach the guard shack several times
in the pouring rain, but the man inside would start shouting and
motioning with his hands in a threatening manner before I could even
get close enough to ask him a question. Our next smart move was to
jump in one of the taxi's waiting in line at the airport and have him
drive us up to the main gate. This time three guards stopped us and
our driver tried explaining our situation in Vietnamese. Still a no
go. I jump out of the taxi, completely drenched by now, and try
talking to the guards myself, "MIA ceremony," I tell them,
"we are on the list." They just look at me like I'm a crazy
American woman and begin to refuse to even acknowledge my presence.
Nothing I could do but get back in the taxi, go back to the airport,
make yet another call to Det-2.
By this time the lady who answers the phone recognizes my voice.
"Look," I tell her, "we can't get inside the gate and
we can't find the VIP lounge in the airport. Can you please call
someone who is already here and have them meet us in the
restaurant?" It seems we at last have a plan.
The tall man in the blue shirt with the JTF logo sure looked
good standing there! But Danny Cox didn't have good news for us, seems
the ceremony had been postponed until 2PM that afternoon due to the
weather. Great, Mike and I were scheduled for a 12:30 flight back to
Saigon, arriving at 6:30 PM, to catch a 7:30 PM train. No choice but
to pay a $50 change fee and get tickets for a later flight. At least
we were assured our names were on the list to attend the MIA ceremony.
The first indication that something was happening was the crowd
of Vietnamese lining the metal gate to get a look at the
big airplane on the tarmac with giant US letters on the nose. Mike
and I didn't connect the plane to the ceremony right away; we were
standing in the rain with everyone else waiting on Clinton or some
other big wig to walk down the ramp. Then Mike spotted several blue
shirts inside the gate and we waved them down. At last the guards were
given a list with our names on it and we were allowed entry. By this
time we were both soaking wet and I couldn't even get a reading on my
camera, but it sure felt good to climb into the vehicles that would
take us the few hundred feet to the spot on the tarmac where the
ceremony would be held.
I was not prepared for what awaited us...the two
small wooden boxes, marked 1 and 2. I knew right away that inside
were remains of two US servicemen and I was in awe that each little
box contained all that was left of someone's lifetime of experiences.
There was no pomp or circumstance, no brass band, only respectful
solitude as the exchange took place. A member of the color guard
marched to the first box and picked it up with exact movements. He
very carefully carried to the first man to a full-size metal coffin
being held open by other members of the multi-service color guard, and
gently sat the box down, and the lid was lowered. An
American flag was laid on the coffin and unfolded carefully, then
a service member held each corner, the flag snapping loudly as it was
draped over and around the coffin, and tucked precisely at each
corner. The ritual was repeated for the second man, without any loss
of respect or recognition in the repetition.
paperwork was quickly signed by both counterparts, and as each
coffin passed in front of Gen.
Terry Tucker, members of the Joint Task Force, and other veteran
organizations. The serviceman inside each metal tomb was saluted, and
carried up the loading ramp of the plane...going home at last.
Paulette Curtis, an anthropology student from Harvard studying the
phenomena of American veterans returning to Vietnam, turned to me and
said, "I don't even know how to describe what just
"Bittersweet," I told her, "this was a
bittersweet moment." I am thinking of an old Rod Stewart song,
"Faith of the heart, strength of the soul." I realize I will
need both to get through the days to come...and I wonder, will a day
like this come for my family?
Mike and I realized when we were preparing to return to Saigon
that once you bought an airplane ticket, you still had to pay a $10
USD ""airport fee" to enter the boarding area. Vietnam
is relatively inexpensive - our rooms in the Rex were only $50 USD a
night, but they stick it to you in unexpected extra charges. I think
we Americans call them "hidden fees;" maybe our corporate
culture is not so different after all.
After we pass through customs, we finally find the VIP waiting
area, inside the departure waiting room. Mike is very happy with the
air-conditioned, plush surroundings...I am more than happy to find a
real toilet in the ladies bathroom. I can see right now, the
hole-in-the-floor arrangement is going to be difficult for me. I can
stoop down, but due to a spinal injury back in '79 when the Special
Reaction Team (SRT) of the unit I was attached to was rappelling off a
wooden fire tower, I can't get back up easily. I have to finger-walk
the walls and it truly makes my guts curl.
While we are sitting in the VIP lounge I noticed a very
attractive Vietnamese woman in conversation with an Australian
businessman. I hear him ask, "Are you the woman who started all
these ambassador's getting married?" Since we are in Hanoi, home
of the American Ambassador Pete Peterson, I wonder if she is his wife
whom I have been hearing so many objections to. The conversation
continues to indicate that she is indeed Mrs. Peterson. When we board
the plane, it so happens that our seats are right behind the two of
them, although I can no longer hear their conversation.
I am starved. Mike had lunch at the restaurant next to the
airport, but I was too tense to eat. I want a cheeseburger, bad! I
think about the food sign we saw near the Rex last night advertising
American looking food...ummm. But when we are served a late lunch on
the plane, I am pleasantly surprised at how good the food is. I love
milk and eagerly open the small carton and take a big drink. Yuck, do
they milk the water buffalo or what?
The flight back to Saigon was short and uneventful, the
countryside lush green with trailing ribbons of brown water
crisscrossing the vastness of open spaces and small villages. When the
plane lands and everyone is preparing to disembark, I decide to find
out if this lady was indeed Mrs. Peterson. As she stood, I lean across
the seat and extend my hand. "Are you Mrs. Peterson?" I ask.
A little surprised she answers, "Well, yes, I am."
"I am the sister of an American MIA," I tell her.
"Would you please tell the Ambassador not to get discouraged, he
is making a difference." I smile at her and add, "And he has
a very lovely wife." She thanks me and we leave the plane first
because we are traveling "deluxe" and board our special
"deluxe" bus to the terminal. No hanging from swaying straps
like sardines in a can. This time I actually get to sit down.
After Mike and I make our way through customs for the third time
in two days, we see Hai waiting for us. We have exactly one hour to
rush to the hotel, collect our luggage, travel to the train station,
and board for our trip to Hue. Unbelievably, we make it without
running over any one, although I had my doubts a couple of times.
Seems to me we should have at least one body attached to a scooter or
bicycle hanging off a side mirror. Vietnam is a country where I will
never even attempt to drive in, even if they do drive on the right
side of the road!
We boarded the Saigon Railway for Train S2 1930 / 1404+
Overnight onboard, almost as it pulled out of the station. A female
attendant showed us to our "soft berths." There were already
two occupants in the lower berths, an elderly woman on my side, and a
young business-type fellow under Mike's bunk. We throw our gear
topside and climb up. The attendant comes to our still open door
requesting our tickets. Mike can't find them. "I just had them in
my hand," he tells her, but I don't think she understood because
she continues to rattle on in Vietnamese with her hand out. Mike
searches his pockets, his luggage, everywhere he could think of in a
panic. Finally he finds the tickets where they had fallen, between the
mattress and the wall. We relax.
I am so tired I don't even try to find a private place to change
out of my dress into something more comfortable. As I lay my head down
on the pillow cover and pull the pallet up over me, I try not to think
about how many other bodies have lain here using the very same
bedclothes that I have pulled over my head. The room is very cold with
air-conditioning blasting through vents and a powerful little
circulating fan that does not have an on and off switch. I don't care
anymore; I could sleep on a bed of nails right now. I doze off
thinking of the day's events. The MIA ceremony really rattled my cage.
A few hours later I wake up freezing. A dress is not much
protection from the freezing air. I look over at Mike and he is a
covered up knot, and the other two passengers seem to be asleep also.
I seize the moment and quickly change into a shirt, jeans, and socks
on my bare feet. Warm at last, I fall back asleep almost immediately.
When I wake up again, daylight is poking through the dusty,
fogged up train window. The businessman is gone and our bunkmate has
prepared breakfast for Mike and myself with small bottles of water, a
strange fruit, and some kind of white pastry. I don't wish to insult
her, so I share the fruit with Mike, but gently refuse the pastry.
Instead, I offer her a Granola Bar, which she politely thanks me for
and puts in her bag. She speaks no English but we have no problem
communicating. We are both grandmothers. I show her pictures of my
family and she pulls her pictures out. Something in common
I wandered around the train until I found the restroom. Oh Lord,
this one is even worse than the airport. Not only is it a hole in the
floor, but the train rocks back and forth. At least there are bars on
the window to hold onto. I try not to look at the filth on the walls,
thinking only of the sink and soap next to me. And I am more than
grateful that at least on the train there is toilet paper.
Mike and I peek out the doors of the train at the few stops we
make en route. We get lots of stares and shy giggles from the young
girls. We meet an Australian veteran who has returned to Vietnam with
his wife to tour his old battle sites. He is tall, with red hair and a
very long red and gray beard. He tells us of his time in country and
that when he returned home he couldn't deal with the young,
inexperienced NCO's telling him his job. He volunteered for a second
tour in 'Nam because he "wanted to do what I was trained to do:
At last, the train reaches Hue and we disembark. There is a fairly
small line of people ahead of us, crowding past a female gate guard
who is checking paperwork. Just as I walk outside the gate and spot
Tra Tran, our guide for the rest of the trip, there is a ruckus behind
us. I turn around to see Mike behind a man trying to push his way past
the guard with a big suitcase. She is fighting him hard when two
policeman rush to help her. The man is detained, Mike makes his way
through the gate, and Tra greets us and introduces our driver, Nam.
Mike and I are curious about the incident, but they lead us to the
car, out of harms way I suppose.
Tra is a replacement guide/interpreter. Our original guide is a
part-time policeman, and unavailable at this time. Mike is
disappointed because he has two Seattle police patches to give to him.
But Tran seems nice and very informative. Just one more little snag,
no big deal. It is late afternoon and we will gladly spend the night
in Hue. I feel like I've been roller-skating, can't lose the movement
of the 20 hours we just spent on the train.
We check into the A Dong Hotel in Hue, which seems nice enough.
I am a little surprised at the insect control method, gecko's crawling
from behind lights, cruising the walls for other, smaller critters. I
can deal with it...as long as there are no snakes in my room. We meet
Tra outside for a ride around the city in a cyclo with a driver
steering and pedaling. Didn't make note of too much of the scenery, I
was too busy freaking out on the traffic! We had so many close calls
with scooters and vehicles I think I said the Lord's prayer about
three times in a row.
After our ride Tra suggests that we go to The Garden Restaurant,
which is within walking distance from the hotel. Okay with me, I'm
hungry, but not so much that I'm ready for another cyclo ride. The
restaurant is very nice, clean with a French air about it. We sit
outside in the garden and look over the extensive menu. We enjoy a
good meal and prepare to leave when we both notice the legless man
waiting near the gate for us. Mike gives him a US dollar and I do the
same for the cripple at the gate. We are humbled by our good fortune
when reminded by the plight of the ever-constant beggars.
Back at the hotel, Mike goes to his room to write in his
journal. I am too overwhelmed to write, all I can do is think. My
little sister has just died and here I am, 30 years late looking for
my big brother in a foreign country. I get close to finding out what
happened to Jerry, only to lose Cindy. Am I nuts or what? Turning on
the television is no help since everything but MSNBC news and MTV are
Vietnamese stations. The news gets old, and I sort of wish they had
VH1 instead of MTV. At last I drift off into a restless sleep;
tomorrow beckons. Tomorrow we take a boat trip on the Huong River,
also known as the Perfume River, and tour Hue.
It's early morning of our third day in Vietnam and we are
excited about the boat trip on the Huong River. Mike arrives and we
settle into the hotel dining room and order a quick breakfast - eggs
and toast with juice. When the waiter brings our plates, the eggs are
so underdone they look like they might just slide off the plates. Mike
does charades with the waiter to no avail, so the cook comes out. We
finally get the message across that we don't want runny eggs, and get
real close to what we asked for. We eat what's on our plates and get
on the road. Thank goodness for French bread!
We board our beautifully decorated boat after greeting the
captain and the crew, which was his wife and young son. The river
supports many families who shovel river sand for roads, fish for the
markets, and provide tours. I guess the boats replace our pickup
trucks. We drift upriver towards the Thien Mu Pagoda, but are not
allowed to enter because of religious activities. The people on the
river are very friendly, but because the soldiers patrol regularly our
hostess scoots us inside so they will not get into trouble.
She makes a pot of tea and pours each of us a little cup. I
don't like hot tea, so I turn mine down. Tra explains to me that I
have offended our hostess, but it is too late to accept now. I think
she forgave me when she began to lay out all sorts of souvenirs,
unpolished brass, and carved wooden turtles with Buddha on the
underside. I bought a few gifts for friends and family back home.
Hand-painted silk, watercolor scenes of Vietnam, a wooden turtle, a
brass cat and candlesticks, all for $10 USD.
Mike and I are more than ready to get on with our journey to
Quang Tri Province, to try and meet up with the Joint Task Force-Full
Accounting (JTF-FA) team, but first we explore the Ngo Mon Gate. It
was built in 1833 as the main entrance to the Imperial, or Forbidden
City. We will also look over the interior of the Great Harmony Palace.
The Palace itself was decorated very lavishly with gold leaf and much
ornamentation, not to mention all the history attached to one of the
cultural emblems of Hue. Photographs are not allowed inside the
Palace, so I bought a postcard of the Emperor's throne room. We are
not allowed inside the Imperial Citadel, but I snap a photo of the
outside of the depressing three-story building with a Vietnamese flag
waving in the breeze.
We roamed the grounds of the Forbidden City in awe of the
delicate workmanship that adorned building after building with
intricate mosaic designs and delicate bonsai gardens. We were told
that the Forbidden City is in a constant state of restoration and it
rather tickled my funny bone that part of the restoration included
bits and pieces of colored glass from different bottles and mirror
shards, none of which were around when the structures were originally
built. As I drifted from building to building, I tried to imagine the
people of power who lived within these walls and pondered the criteria
that fate uses to determine who will have power and who will not; who
will sleep in beds of gold and who will sleep on rice mats on dirt
As we drive north on QL1 to Dong Ha, we stop at a church,
roofless and so riddled with bullet holes it is a wonder it still
stands at all. Standing inside the shell of the old church, I peek
through the pitted walls and question the sanctuary of church in a
communist country. Who shot this church to pieces, where people taking
refuge here at the time...?
Vietnam seems to have a host of citadels, which I would call war
museums. We stopped at the Quang Tri City citadel where workers were
in the process of detonating still active explosives within shouting
distance of the monument itself. Not a job I would apply for. The
monument itself didn't leave a lasting impression, but the exhibits
inside on display were graphic. Many pictures of war, all one-sided,
of course, and a small collection of captured artifacts such as
weapons, etc. Actually, for me the most compelling item was the
guestbook. Mike and I took the time to read all of the prior entries.
We were surprised to discover that a mini-war of sorts continues in
these books. Europeans are still judgmental of American involvement
with Vietnam, many American vets expressed bitterness, but many more
spoke of peace and some recalled incidents of loss. I found myself
resentful of those people from other countries who suffered no losses
in the war making broad judgments regarding American involvement in
Vietnam. Perhaps they think we were merely interfering with one of
Europe's favorite cheap get-a-way vacation spots...who cares what they
think now, where were these judgmental souls when the war was hot and
heavy and life was measured in days, not years!
I could not help but think of all the school children who visit
these memorials and read what is written in the guest books. I wanted
to write something hopeful, with a subtle warning of the impact our
written words can have on people we never meet. I thought I was
quoting a familiar Vietnamese proverb, "The young bamboo bends
I was surprised when we returned to the car and after traveling
for a ways Tra turned around and asked me, "The young bamboo
bends easily, what this means?" I explained to him that it meant
that what they see and hear easily influences the young, and the
children of the world are the responsibility of all. At this point,
Tra seemed to open up and began to talk with Mike and I about his
childhood---it wasn't the kind of story you tell to your children to
put them to sleep with sweet dreams. His story was probably typical of
the times, his father was forced to leave the family and fight in the
war, eventually being listed as missing-in-action. Tra, his mother,
brother and sisters lived in Danang, and when the VC overran the town
they ran towards the American troops seeking protection.
Unfortunately, the entire family was shot down by mistake. Tra woke up
in an American field hospital and after a few months of recovery, was
taken home by a farmer to help in the fields; he was 8 years old.
Much time passed and the farmer's neighbor's wife had to go to
the hospital for treatment. There she bunked close to a woman who
cried day and night. At last she could stand it no more and finally
asked her weeping companion what could make her cry so much. The woman
told the farmer's wife that she had lost her husband and all of her
children during the battle when Danang was overrun and she was afraid
because she was a woman all alone in the world now. The farmer's wife
thought about this and remembered that her neighbor had brought a
young boy home from a different field hospital months ago, but she did
not know the boys name. She promised the suffering woman that she
would learn more about the boy when she returned home. There was great
joy in the "grand-reunion" of Tra and his mother, and
together they mourned the loss of the father/husband and all of the
other children. Tra ended his story saying his mother lived to be 80
I sat in the backseat of the small car, rolling down Highway 1,
overwhelmed with grief for this man and his family, mentally holding
up my family history next to his and realizing that we are more alike
than different...pain is the same. Long moments passed, everyone lost
in thought, and not a word spoken. At last I had to know, "Tra,
how is it that you suffered so much during the war, but you are not
bitter?" He did not answer right away, but when he did turn and
look directly at me, it was not an answer he gave but a question he
asked, "If you look back and are bitter, how can you survive in
today?" Reality bites!
Speaking of biting, it was along this road that we passed a
truck loaded with wooden cages containing a small breed of dogs.
"Where are those dogs going?" I asked Tra. He did not
hesitate before answering, "To the Chinese border." Mike and
I just looked at one another, and we both wondered...but not once did
we see "dog" on any menu. I did see an article in the
newspaper before I left that stated the government was asking the
people to stop eating so many snakes and cats because it was causing
an uncontrollable rise in the rat population. And when I departed the
airport duty store had an interesting display of pickled snakes. I
recognized a cobra, but most of the other snakes were strange, but
interesting, to me.
It was a tired crew that arrived in Dong Ha the evening of Friday, May
6, 1999. We checked into the Phuong Hoang Hotel. Mike and I went
directly to our rooms. They were not fancy, but surface clean...
Definitely not the Rex Hotel. I couldn't understand why we were given
keys to the door of the room and to the door of the bathroom. I had a
big bathtub in my room, but Mike had a drain hole in the floor, a red
plastic wash basin, and a handheld showerhead. And every room seemed
to have the added benefit of a glass full of old, much used
Mike came to my room to tell me that he had just seen an
American in the hallway, when there was a startling, heavy knock on
the door. Mike opened it and I could hear an American voice asking if
this was "Ms. Elliott's room?" Enter Major Ken Royalty,
commander of the 55th Joint Task Force (JTF) Team, one of the last
people I expected to see at my door! Certainly blew my hair back, I
thought I would have to hunt these guys down all over Quang Tri
Province. Now Mike and I are invited to meet with the team this
evening to discuss site information and action plans. "We will
show you everything we have," the Major told us. It is good that
Mike is here, I am reeling from the riptide of emotions, and he will
remember details and he's keeping a journal. I find that I cannot...
writer's block - too much to digest and spit out on paper right now.
The team met in a small room at the end of the hallway where our
rooms were. They were easy people to be around, cheerful despite the
mission, but totally dedicated to recovery and resolution. We were
briefed on Case 1000, Jerry's file reference number, and a plan of
action was determined. The team would leave Dong Ha early the next
morning, traveling Highway 9 to Khe Sanh to the Old French Fort. The
main problem was the Vietnamese counterparts are claiming that they
know nothing of an Old French Fort in the area and it's not noted on
the topographical map the team is using. Mike to the rescue. He has
brought a hand-drawn copy of a map of the Khe Sanh area that shows the
Old French Fort that I discovered on the Internet. We are told that
the Vietnamese were not comfortable with our being at the site when
they and team were working. Mike and I told the team we were not there
to hinder the mission and therefore would follow later. We would find
the site by ourselves with the map, the GPS locator Mike had with him
already programmed with the grid coordinates of the crash site
according to DPMO, and the assistance of Tra and Nam.
Meeting over, we were invited to eat with the team at one of the
local street cafes. I'm not particularly found of oriental food to
begin with, so I thought a rice and vegetable dish would do for me.
Our plates were served and I was gingerly picking through the food on
mine when the lights went out. They came back on and I pushed some
strange looking items to one side, didn't look like any veggie's I'd
ever seen. Lights off again, I'm eating in the dark and suddenly bite
down on something hard and crispy, what!!! Lights on again as I spit
it discreetly into my napkin and see the ass end of a shrimp's tail.
Ugh, I'm eating someone else's leftovers - I'm done! I can see right
now food is going to be a real problem for me here in the boonies of
Vietnam. Occurs to me that the war would have been over a lot sooner
if the VC had known to hit our food supply trucks and force US troops
to eat what was available locally.
There was no rest for me that long night. Each time I closed my
eyes and relaxed my guard, a nightmare crawled across my mind and
startled me awake. Around four in the morning I gave up and decided I
might as well shower and dress. The water was freezing and I assumed I
was up before the hotel caretakers who must turn the hot water on. My
hair is long and I pulled it up into a ponytail to beat the heat, put
on a sleeveless shirt and shorts, pulled my camera from it's case and
went down stairs to watch the sun come up. There wasn't much traffic
that early in the morning, and except for a few of the JTF team who
were returning from a run, the hotel was quiet and still in the
predawn semi-light. I sit on the steps outside and watch as this
little village prepares for a new day. The scooters that passed
carried not only passengers, but were alive with everything from huge
bundles of leafy vegetables, to quacking ducks and oinking pigs. Today
was just another day for these people; to me this day already had an
air of unreality about it. Like when you dream of something so often
that you began to wonder if it's really a dream.
The JTF Team pushed out about 7am and Mike and I killed another
hour or so eating breakfast and getting organized. We ate in the hotel
and were served duck eggs, french bread, and very sweet coffee. I
managed to have cream cheese added to the menu, although I was really
asking for butter or jelly. Add it all together and I had a Donna
McMuffin of sorts... at least I could eat it without gagging.
Traveling west on Highway 9 was an adventure. The road was
nothing but muddy ruts in a lot of places and traffic was heavy. The
bottom of our little car kept dragging and many times I wondered if
our driver wouldn't be forced to turn around. Nam never said a word,
he just kept driving through mud piles, around rocks, dodging people
walking and riding bicycles or scooters. Mike and I joked of bringing
him to the states and turning him loose as a taxi driver in some large
city; it didn't matter where because he was definitely up to the
challenge. I found out later that he had to attend a special school to
drive, because of the traffic and unexpected encounters on the road,
these guys rarely speak, they just drive with total concentration. The
Major told us that it seemed that every trip he had made to 'Nam,
there was always one to three dead people they passed alongside the
road. Someone covers them up with leaves or whatever is handy until
the family can come and take them home for burial. This can take a few
days sometimes and I'm really glad that we did not have to see a
person sprawled dead on the side of the road like everyday road kill.
Highway 9 is an historical route of the Vietnam War, so much
fighting, so much loss of life. We stopped at the beginning of the Ho
Chi Minh Trail, and as I watched work crews and vehicles cross the
river, so serene and swift, I could only appreciate the cost, not the
beauty. We crossed the Dakrong and Hien Luong Bridges, and passed the
Razorback and Rock Pile en route to Khe Sanh. The warrior's tales I
have heard and read about make it easy to expect armed troops to pop
out of the jungle at anytime. I can easily imagine helicopters
circling overhead in preparation of landing on the Rock Pile...it is a
hauntingly beautiful landscape that beckons one to explore. If I were
a city girl I would be totally unaware that the jungle can swallow
people whole and never spit them out again.
At last we have arrived in Khe Sanh. I have seen pictures of the
village from 1968 and it hasn't changed all that much, just more
buildings and people - progress, you know. But the countryside is a
lush green jungle, with sparkling waterfalls sliding down solid
granite mountains into rivers that make you want to get out of the car
and go fishing on the spot. We weave down a muddy gravel road to yet
another, even slicker dirt road off to the right, a road that nobody
without a four-wheel drive is going to travel very far on. We park and
walk. The usual passel of curious kids swarm us as we walk up to a
sign that announces simply "Historical Vestige of Tacon Combat
Base 'Khesanh' 500m". The children, all giggles and smiles, try
to sell us everything under the sun...while one of the braver and more
talented little boys attempts to pick my pockets as we walk. I let him
go for it. After all, I know any pocket within reach is empty.
We drag our heavy, slick and muddy feet past row upon row of
coffee beans into the middle of a big flat red, totally barren dirt
field. We walk past several groups of Vietnamese tourists returning
from the museum, friendly but somber. War is a two-edged sword.
In the background the after-rain mists float surrealistically
across the green mountaintops in the distance. On the bare field
before us are displayed remnants of U.S. artillery. A Vietnamese man
with a wooden tray approaches us; "You buy American dogtag? How
'bout medal?" The box was full of French coins, old belt buckles,
buttons, and many U.S. soldier dogtags. They almost had it down pat,
except some of the names were imprinted backwards on the tags. I
bought one just because Richard Lennon had told me he had purchased
one the first time he returned to Vietnam after the war and had been
able to return it to the rightful owner, who had indeed lost it in
Khe Sanh Combat Base. This place almost sucked me into the past.
I admit I knew of the battle fought here, but not as much as I was to
learn from the pictures hanging on the walls of the war museum. Had I
known the magnitude of lives lost on this field, upon first sight I
would have known the dirt was red with blood, not minerals. Mike and I
slowly walked around the one-room collection of photographs and
paraphernalia of war portraying the Vietnamese view of "The
American War". We read the captions of every picture. All
depicted the "heroic" Viet Cong in the midst of battle
performing acts of bravery. The titles were in Vietnamese and in
English, but if the Provisional Revised Government really wants to
lure American tourists, particularly Vietnam veterans, to Vietnam,
somebody better learn not to translate literally. "The miserable
Americans..." offended me. Mike shrugged it off and said,
"Well, we were miserable!"
This war museum also had a guest book for visitors to sign and I
made note of a few: "WAR - Young men fighting out old men's
insecurities." (Maggie Berg Aug '98); "For those who have
fought for it, life holds a flavor the protected will never
know." ("First found written in 1967 on a C-Rat carton tied
with commo wire to an engineer stake next to a bunker at KheSanh and
are words some of us will never forget as long as we live."
Written by Sun-Run who returned 30 years later after serving in
THE OLD FRENCH FORT
We rode up and down Hwy 9 in the middle of Khe Sanh while Mike checked
his GPS for the crash site location. After a couple of passes, the GPS
indicated we were very close and it would probably be easier to park
and walk since navigable roads were few and far between. The three of
us, Mike, Tra, and myself, drew a lot of attention as we humped the
slick backroads of the Khe Sanh community. Children were returning to
school from lunch at home and they greeted us with friendly smiles, as
did the few adults we encountered. It was a hot, extremely humid day,
and my hair felt like a ton of wool dripping sweat. My camera hanging
around my neck, which I usually don't even notice, seemed as though I
was hauling around a cinderblock on a string. All three of us were
breathing hard by the time we topped the hill and saw the four-wheel
drive vehicles the JTF teams were driving. They had just returned from
the crash site...my heart was pounding in my chest so hard I wondered
if the others could hear it.
Major Royalty greeted us with these words, "Ms. Elliott, we
located the crash site, but I'm sorry to say we didn't find any sign
of the chopper or your brother." He continued to tell us they had
found the exact spot where the helicopter had crashed, used the metal
detectors, and made a few digs. There was so much metal debris the
metal detectors were making positive reads so consistently it was
impossible to make viable use of the machines. He then handed me a
piece of a mortar round they had dug up from the site and told me he
was so sorry he had nothing else to give me.
The team was hot and tired, ready for a meal, and then they and
the Vietnamese counterparts were going to locate and interview two
local residents who they had learned had scavenged the crash site. We
would meet back in Dong Ha at the hotel and they would brief Mike and
I on whatever, if anything, they discovered. The team departed and
Mike, Tra, and I climbed the steep hill they had just descended.
"Oh my God," I thought, "they've built a
Vietnamese cemetery right on top of the crash site!" We quickly
discovered there was an even higher level of land behind the cemetery
and found our way around the fenced burial grounds. On approach we
spotted a tall, concrete tower, partially destroyed, function unknown.
To the left, behind the cemetery, was an uninhibited, flat area, and
to the right, at a lower level, a newer burial ground. Mike kept
checking his GPS for the exact site (unknown to us the military keys
in variables that threw us off the exact spot by a few hundred feet.)
Nobody said anything, we all knew no matter where we stood on this
ground, and it was hallowed.
We kept walking around and around, Mike checking his GPS and
maps with Tra, me just wandering. I needed to be alone, to get a feel
for the place, to see if some kind of sixth sense would miraculously
kick in and I would instinctually know if Jerry's spirit dwelled in
this spot. I desperately tried to pull all the details I could
remember from Tom Pullen's letter describing the event he witnessed
from the air that fateful day...it just didn't feel right, like we
weren't in the right spot. I walked a little ways down an old trail
that wound down the mountainside, searching every inch of ground with
hope. I didn't get very far, Mike and Tra were right on my heels,
calling, "Donna, Donna, where are you?"
"I'm right here," I shouted back and stepped out where
they could see me from the top. "You don't have to worry about me
getting off the trail and getting lost. I'm not stepping anywhere it's
not obvious somebody has been many times before." What I really
wanted to say was, "Please, leave me alone, let me feel whatever
is here. Sometimes the pain is better than the numbness, at least you
know you are alive." I read somewhere that "Pain from loss
contains within it the seeds for healing and renewal." Guess I
was looking for some of those seeds. I pray and walk some more.
This day, 8 May 1999, 11,196 days later, I walk where Jerry ran.
I stand atop the Old French Fort in Khe Sanh, Vietnam, in the hot,
humid sun of Southeast Asia, and look out across the peaceful
mountainside. "Why? Why? Why? Where is he?" I ask myself,
"Dead or alive?" I have traveled to the other side of the
world and I still don't know. Not a trace that he is, or ever was.
It was fairly obvious to all of us that if there were any
remains in this area, they would have been discovered long ago by the
locals when they began burying their own dead here. Funny, how none of
us would give up, we must have stayed up there for a couple of hours
searching for...a clue, hope? After all, what could we possibly
discover that a team of experts did not?
Mike finally utilized his Pathfinder survival skills and he paid
a couple of children who were following us around some dong to show us
where the American's had marked the spot with a x, as they had told
us. The kids took us right to the spot, about 75 meters down a slight
slope from the highest point. There it is a big yellow x spray painted
on a utility pole. The only thing that marks the spot where LTC Joseph
P. Seymoe, WO1 Gerald L. McKensey, and SSG Billy D Hill lost their
lives, and my brother, Jerry, disappeared from life, as we know it. A
pathetic memorial to four American soldiers just "doing their
job," trying to insert troops and supplies to Hung Hoa.
We're hot, sweaty, tired and a bit discouraged as we trudge
downhill from the Old
French Fort,back onto the red dirt road that runs into the main
drag. There Nam is waiting in the car for us. Some Vietnamese children
fall in beside us and chatter away asking questions with open
curiosity. "You Americans...I learn speak English." I was so
burnt out I couldn't manage conversation and walking at the same time,
so I leave the kids up to Mike. They charm him with their cheerfulness
and smiling brown faces. We treat them to bubble gum before we climb
into the wonderful cool air of the car and head up OL 9, towards some
grub and cold water!
Tired and hungry we stop at the Nha Trang restaurant just
outside of Khe Sanh. Two
ducks are playing in the mud hole in front of the simple,
open-faced building. At the end of the porch dishes are piled in a
handmade basket, air-drying. Someone is asleep in the next, room
separated only by a wooden handrail from the restaurant. A small
figure is stretched out on a mahogany wood bed with no mattress, just
a thin rice pad. Mike
orders a rice dish and I order a package of Nabisco cookies
There is a group of Vietnamese women; some are dressed very
Western, at a table near ours. It seems like the city cousins have
come to visit the country cousins. Chop sticks waving, they chatter in
Vietnamese among themselves. I happen to glance up to check out the
structure of the building and notice a very large spider.
"Mike," I ask, "do you know what
kind of spider that is hanging over your head?"
"No," he says without even looking up, "and I
don't want to know." But I did notice he finished his meal in
record time. In
the back, the dishes are stacking up.
As we finished our meal and were squaring up the bill, the
restaurant owner notices Mike's tattoo. His right forearm is marked
"67 VIETNAM 68" above jump wings. Ever since he arrived in
Vietnam, people have been walking up and touching his tattoo,
especially the young men and women in the shops, and asking questions,
like "You fight in American War?"
At first it made Mike very uncomfortable because he expected to
be the brunt of some of the bitterness he felt, but by now it had
become a useful conversation starter. Our host proudly turned his
right arm towards us, revealing
a tattoo of a peace dove with the letters U.S. Turns out he fought
with us during the war. I ask Trah if this man was mistreated because
of his tattoo after the war. He translates that the restaurant owner
had a hard time until around '75 and then it didn't seem to matter
anymore to the officials. I thought about asking what happened before
'75, but decided I didn't really want to know...I still had to digest
the stifled emotions of the Old French Fort.
Back on the road again we travel OL 9 towards the border of
Laos. Lang Vei is one of the old Special Forces Camps and many lives
were lost here. There is a Soviet tank on display here, #268, a
Vietnamese monument. There is a trail directly behind the large
monument leading into the lush, green valley below, and the river that
separates Vietnam and Lao's. Mike and I have just returned from
exploring the remains
of two bunkers , and we are standing quietly, trying to still the
vivid images of bloody battles that our imaginations have hurled at
Suddenly, the roar of a dirt bike we can hear, but can't see,
startles us. Whoa, a scooter carrying two passengers pops up out of
thick bushes behind the tank. It's a man and a very pregnant young
woman; both have bandanas covering their faces. She gets off the bike
and he drives right past us without word or action. A second look at
the girl reveals a very strange pregnancy indeed. On a hot day in May
she has on a long-sleeve jacket and a black shirt that stretches over
shaped midsection . Oddest-looking baby I have ever seen! Looks
like she may give birth to a case of cigarettes any second now! I
can't help but laugh at the irony of the situation. Smugglers! And
using a Vietnamese war memorial for cover at that.
Another two bikes zoom up the trail, one zipping right past us
and the other driver pulling into the bushes. Mike and I glance at
each other, asking without words, "think we're safe?" I
smile because the smugglers don't seem to give a damn if we are there
or not, not even responding when I openly take pictures.
Trah explains to us that the smugglers go to Laos or Thailand
and bring in black-market items, mainly American cigarettes. If they
are caught the punishment is life in prison or death. Money must be
really good! Although it appears that quite an elaborate safety net is
in place with checkpoints along the way where the bike riders are
tipped off if the border patrol has just passed and is in the area.
The smugglers just backtrack to the last safe zone. Such a daily
routine the two old ladies across the road don't even stop picking
ticks off their precious cattle to look up.
Maj. Royalty and the
JTF Team are already at the hotel in Dong Ha when we arrive and
are waiting to brief us on what they found at the crash site. Mike and
I join the team in the meeting room, a small room with a large table,
several chairs, and a noisy wall fan that just moves the hot air
around. The Major informs me that the team did indeed locate the crash
site, but were unable to utilize the metal detectors due to the huge
amount of ordinance frags in the area.
They identified, located, and interviewed two Vietnamese
witnesses who scavenged the site in the 70's, discovering and
recovering part of the helicopter rotor blade being used as a corner
post in a cowpen . The team later presents the war relic to me and
help me make arrangements to have the 10' section cut into pieces, so
it will fit into the trunk and I can have it shipped home. Due to lack
of evidence found at the crash site the Major informs me that he
cannot make a recommendation to excavate the site at this time.
Before I have time to absorb and respond to this information,
the door opens and in walks Col. Tho, the Major's Vietnamese
counterpart. All the Americans in the room, including Mike and I,
unofficially know that the Maj. is under orders to keep the Col. and
I, an unpredictable MIA family member, separated in order not to
jeopardize the 55th JTF's mission to recover as many remains during
their time in-country as possible. If I offend Col. Tho, or worse yet
attack him physically, diplomatic hell will certainly break loose. A
hush falls over the room and you can feel muscles tighten as the Col.
unknowingly sits directly across the table from me. The Maj.
Introduces me through the team's interpreter, and explains my status
as a family member of "case number 1000."
The Col., Mike, and I shake hands and the Col. looks down at his
knarly; hazelnut hands and speaks to me in Vietnamese. "I regret
that we meet under these conditions, and it is with a sad heart that I
must tell you that we have no news of your brother." The old
soldier looks up at me and says, "Perhaps, in the future we will
be able to answer your questions."
The Maj. immediately tries to bring the briefing to a close, but
I hold up my hand to stop. "Wait, sir, if you don't mind I have
something to say to the Col." Almost as one, the JTF team members
casually shift in their positions, some seated, some standing. They
are primed to leap without forethought, not unlike wild animals
responding to primitive warning senses. Will I cuss him, or worse yet,
will I leap across the table and try to choke the truth out of him?
Neither, I am not an out-of-control individual, and I am not quite so
politically na´ve. I want to impress on the colonel how important
accounting for Jerry really is to me, put a face to the misery, put at
the same time allow him to save face.
"Col. Tho," I began as I lock my green eyes dead onto
his liquid brown eyes and try to keep his complete attention, "I
come to Vietnam to look for the bones of my brother." I hold out
both hands, palms down, and open them as I spread my arms wide to
indicate the emptiness. The colonel cannot look at me now, his head
hanging. "But now I must now return home with empty hands."
It's true, you can still a room where a pin drop can be heard!
I reach across the table and pick up both of his big, brown
hands in mine. "But I go home with many new Vietnamese
friends!" I finish with a big smile. Everyone takes a deep breath
and goodwill abounds with smiles and handshakes all around.
The Colonel and the Major briefly discuss details about
tomorrow's case. The team must deploy to a remote spot in the jungle,
to a crash site and look for remains. Col. Tho informs the Major that
they will chopper out in the old Russian helicopter the Vietnamese
counterparts use for JTF missions. The team moans, apparently
maintenance is a problems on these old girls, and the team has had to
bail out after take-off more than once. They fear for their lives
every time they go up in one, but it's that or hump the jungle for
days, with two vanloads of equipment on their backs. It's interesting
to hear the planning process. Every member of the team has
responsibility and input. The individual professionalism is
reassuring. I believe there is not a man here who does not take the
The Major informs the Colonel that they have intelligence that
the crash site has been located by Vietnamese in the area who want
compensation. The Colonel shrugs and says through the interpreter,
"Before we find it, nobody knows about it. Now that we find
it---everyone knows about it."
Did I make a difference? Doubt it, but I think that if
"case 1000" doesn't bring Jerry's face to mind the next time
Col. Tho's encounters Jerry's file, maybe, just maybe he will remember
that this man had a sister, and that she traveled thousands of miles
to Vietnam to look for him. Simply because she could not, would not,
forget her brother. I believe that as long as Jerry is
missing-in-action, our eagle flies in chains!
When the meeting breaks up Maj. Royalty invites us to eat supper
with the team. Everyone walks down the blacktop road dodging vehicles,
bicycles, and potholes, to a different restaurant. What a difference
having an interpreter with you. The team turns us on to "khoai
tay chien," french fries! They are delicious, especially with
"dua gang-ca chua," or cucumbers and tomatoes, and I'm
thinking I may not starve to death after all. Even the big rat
scurrying along the inside wall of the restaurant can stop me from
cleaning my plate slick. Except for small loaves of French bread daily
and the occasional duck egg, this is the most food my belly has seen
After supper Mike and I return to the hotel, worn out from the
day. I lay in bed, staring at the acoustic tile in the ceiling,
wrestling with my emotions. I fall asleep only to have a totally
wretched dream of Mama, Daddy, Jerry, and Cindy. I turn the light on
and try to deal with my feelings by writing a poem, which everyone
signs the next morning. I will take it to The Vietnam Veterans Wall
with a large piece of the chopper blade, and place it by Jerry's name
so perhaps he will know someday how hard and how long we searched for
him. That we never gave up.
POW/MIA---Who Can Say?
In my dreams I can clearly see Jerry's face,
But harsh reality reveals only an empty space.
To Vietnam, Mike, his Army buddy, and I, his sister, came,
Searching for something, anything to ease the pain.
The last Elliott alive, I am eternally duty
To question until my big brother is someday found.
My worn body aches, heart and mind so very tired,
Yet questions unanswered still burn like fire!
My Father, my friend, my rock, my guide,
Does he perhaps in Your heavenly house abide?
With Mama, Daddy, and little sister Cindy Ann,
Or does he somehow, somewhere, survive in some foreign land?
No sure answer, no piece of bone have we found,
Walking over the crash site's hallowed ground.
Only half the chopper's blade, a cornerpost in a cowpen,
Surely, Lord, this cannot be the final end!
We and the 55th JTF Team traveled far to find my
All clues end in Khe Sanh, at this time we can go no further.
Now, in the rainy darkness of a Vietnam morning I pray,
Please, Lord; give us all word of Jerry some day...
Photo of the
55th JTF-FA Team
Copyright, 1999 by Donna E. Elliott