WASHINGTON -- More than 24 years ago, Wayne T. Gilchrest left Vietnam on a stretcher after being seriously wounded by a North Vietnamese soldier.
Now a congressman from Washington, Gilchrest will return to Vietnam next month -- to try and find out if any of his former comrades were left behind. It is not a duty the ex-Marine takes lightly.
"I think all Vietnam veterans share a certain closeness with each other and a certain sense of loss," said Gilchrest, R-1st. "Because of the configuration of the war and because [we] understand the terrain, the people and the culture, there remains a possibility that there are people alive."
But Gilchrest does not want to raise false hopes in the families of the 2,302 American soldiers -- 35 from Maryland -- unaccounted for from the Vietnam war.
"I don't want to . . . [have] them think that we're going to find a husband or a son, but we're dedicated to doing what's necessary to bring this situation to as close to a resolution as possible," he said.
Gilchrest and five other congressmen who are Vietnam-era veterans -- Reps. Tom Carper, D-Del.; Douglas "Pete" Peterson, D-Fla.; John J. Rhodes 3rd, R-Ariz.; David Skaggs, D-Colo.; and Jim Kolbe, R-Ariz. -- are to leave Saturday. They are to travel to Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and Thailand and return on Aug. 10.
"This a pretty clean group," Gilchrest said of those accompanying him. "This is six veterans that have a real stake not only in the issue of the MIAs, but in bringing stability to Southeast Asia."
The delegation is going at the request of the State Department.
Questions about Americans who may still be in Vietnam and Laos were raised again recently with the circulation of a photograph bearing a 1990 date and seeming to show three Americans still being held in Indochina.
Relatives of the men in the picture have positively identified them.
The Pentagon, however, is skeptical about the picture. It said Thursday that the photo of the three men had passed through the hands of a "ring of Cambodian opportunists led by a well-known and admitted fabricator" of information about missing Americans.