Carroll veteran plans Vietnam mission to search for Americans left behind

May 02, 1993|By Greg Tasker | Greg Tasker,Staff Writer

Richard F. Will Sr. left Vietnam nearly 30 years ago after a tou in the Army's communication corps. The Melrose resident hopes to return this summer, not to heal any emotional scars but to help find American soldiers left behind.

"My only regret is that I didn't do something like this 15 years ago," said Mr. Will, who revisited Vietnam briefly for humanitarian purposes in the early 1970s to help build houses. "I think all of us veterans have known in our hearts that we left others behind."

As part of "Project: Unauthorized Entry," Mr. Will, 48, will spend two weeks in Vietnam next month with a five- to 10-member team investigating tips on prisoners of war or those missing in action. The project is sponsored by Live POW Lobby of America, a POW-MIA group with more than 2,500 members nationwide.

The federal government's perceived unwillingness to resolve whether POWs or MIAs are there has prompted veterans across the country to seek them on their own, using private dollars to finance trips to Vietnam and Laos.

Paul Gloria, a Pikesville veteran who coordinated the group's first trip in March, said the project hopes to send 20 teams of veterans to Vietnam during the next two years.

"I was convinced before I went over there that there were POWs and MIAs still alive," said Mr. Gloria, 43, a letter carrier. "Even so, any doubts I may have had when I got over there were erased by what I saw."

Veterans' hopes have been buoyed by sighting reports and satellite intelligence and by information obtained by a team of veterans who traveled to Vietnam in March.

"Some of these [POWs and MIAs] have been hidden and are on work detail in Laos," Mr. Will said. "We believe some of them are being used to farm [drug] fields."

To make the journey, Mr. Will, a telephone cable splicer, must raise $4,500. So far, he has raised about $700 and is soliciting donations from Carroll residents and businesses.

"It's not so much that it's important to me. It's important to the families of this nation who have sons left behind. We owe it to them."

During the trip, Mr. Will and the team will travel on foot or hitchhike through jungles and mountains. They will live in tents, drink water treated with purification tablets and backpack food.

"Physically, I'm in pretty good shape," Mr. Will said. "Mentally, I don't know whether I can prepare myself for this. The hardest part, I think, could be seeing POWs being held against their will and then for some reason have to leave them behind."

Although both the U.S. and Vietnamese governments said the nation was open to veterans and their families to look for POWs, the first team of veterans found otherwise.

"What we found was that we had been lied to," said Rick Newkirk, a Union Mills, Ind., veteran. "They took our visas and passports and didn't allow us to go anywhere for 36 hours. In Hanoi, we could only travel by day and weren't allowed to go anywhere at night."

The group, he said, had to bribe people to get where they wanted to go. Mr. Newkirk, a 41-year-old truck driver, described the trip as marginally successful, noting the team came across people who had seen prisoners of war in recent years.

"We talked to men who had seen 41 of them in three different groups," he said. "They're being held against their will -- probably for slave labor. We made some contacts for future teams to go in so they can get set up to go where they have to go."

Mr. Gloria, who spent three months in Vietnam as a Marine, said teams hope to free POWS or MIAs if they find them. He declined to elaborate.

Mr. Will said he has always been concerned about prisoners of war. But like others, he has been skeptical of previously published reports.

The turning point for Mr. Will came after he met a former prisoner of war who had information to support others' existence.

"Being a skeptic, I don't believe in wild goose chases," he said. "I'd finally found someone who had been a former prisoner of war and had done thorough research. I decided to join the team and help."

Veterans concede that some of those missing in action in Vietnam will not be found. Mr. Gloria said veterans estimate that there are more than 2,000 POWs and MIAs in Vietnam and Laos.

"There's no doubt in my mind that these men are still kept captive," Mr. Gloria said. "Some are living freely over there, too. I brought home some handwritten letters from as late as December from men being held against their will and wanting help. I brought back dog tags and hand-drawn maps of POW camps."

"I personally don't know anyone over there," Mr. Will said. "But I think we owe it to their families. We owe it to those unaccounted for from World War II and Korea.

"I would rather stay home and enjoy the good life," said Mr. Will, the father of three grown children. "But I think when opportunities arise where you need to make a change, we as individuals must act. It's our responsibility. This is one of of those opportunities."

Readers wishing to contribute to Mr. Will's trip may send donations to P.O. Box 1725, Westminster, Md. 21157.

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