WASHINGTON -- A quarter-century after he fought and shed blood in Vietnam, Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest of Maryland returned to old battlefields and dined with former enemies.
"It was a moving experience to be on the ground where you fought 25 years ago, and then come back to try to bring peace," Gilchrest said yesterday after returning with five other lawmakers from a week-long assessment of efforts to locate missing American servicemen.
"One evening meal . . . I sat next to the man who had headed the Viet Cong in South Vietnam. And we exchanged war stories. More important than that, we exchanged understanding about why there needs to be peace to end the weariness that war has wrought on these people for so long."
The Viet Cong were guerrilla fighters in South Vietnam backed by the North Vietnamese. Gilchrest, a young Marine, received medals and a bullet in the chest for his efforts in fighting them. But that was then. Today Gilchrest, a Republican from Maryland's Eastern Shore, wants the U.S. to make peace by normalizing relations with Vietnam.
Gilchrest says he believes establishment of diplomatic and economic ties would bring Americans to Vietnam and further encourage its leaders to assist in the search for the remains of dead servicemen and any who might still be alive. Even without such ties, the Vietnamese appear quite serious about helping, he says.
"They now fully understand how the American people feel when it comes to MIAs, they know this is an issue that is barely below the surface getting ready to burst. So they understand the nature of it, so they want to get it behind them and research it, because they want diplomatic relations and an end to the embargo," he said.
Gilchrest said the "general secretary of the Communist Party said he will give us, the U.S., total access to follow up any leads, to go where they think it's necessary to look for MIAs, so we can bring this particular issue that has vexed Americans for so long to an acceptable and reasonable conclusion."
There are 2,273 U.S. servicemen still unaccounted for, a fraction of the 300,000 to 500,000 Vietnamese fighters whose fates remain unknown, according to Gilchrest.
"Ours to them pales in comparison. However, they're looking at Americans at being so interested in those few people that they see us as very humanitarian. And so that there's a sense, there's a certain respect for our desire to not give up on any possible live Americans, to repatriate the remains so people can put their fears to rest."
Gilchrest won't speculate on whether Americans might be held captive in Vietnam or a neighboring country. He says he shares the view of the American officials whose job it is to investigate reports and photographs of Americans, like the recent one that showed three middle-aged men and is believed by government officials to be a fake.
"I take the same position . . . that we follow every lead, no matter how remote, that we investigate, that we research it, that we come to a conclusion."