Veteran goes on the march over POWs Will is convinced Americans still held

October 03, 1993|By Amy L. Miller | Amy L. Miller,Staff Writer

Rick Will is angry. He's angry at the American government, angry at the traditional veterans associations, angry at businesses who want to trade in Vietnam.

"Our government is denying that we have a large number of POWs left over there," said Mr. Will, who returned Wednesday from an 18-day trip to Vietnam to search for veterans he believes were left behind.

"We need greater support from the traditional veterans associations. We need less lip service and more real support."

A Vietnam veteran who served with the Army's communications corps, Mr. Will went "in-country" with a private, informal search team to investigate reports of POW sightings. The team didn't see any live Americans, but its findings have served to fuel his anger.

"With the exception of bringing out someone alive, we met all the objectives for our mission," he said. "We talked to three individuals that had firsthand experience with live POWs and/or live Americans over there.

"One of the guys that went over there [Buzz Parish] believed in his heart that live Americans were over there, but went in hopes of proving himself and everyone else wrong. He's convinced now, more than ever, that there are live Americans there."

The body language of the Vietnamese people the group members talked to convinced them that their information about American veterans trapped in Vietnam is true, Mr. Will said.

"They would look you in the eye and seemed like they were sincere," he said.

But there were times when it appeared that the American visitors and their Vietnamese sources were being watched as they talked, Mr. Will said. When other Vietnamese that weren't wearing the usual Vietnamese attire, people wearing dress pants or carrying a camera, would get close to them, "they [the sources] would clam up right away."

Mr. Will said he and the other group members believe the people who appeared to be watching them were members of the Vietnamese secret police, eavesdropping on their conversations.

"[Other Americans] said it would be awful difficult to get people to admit they had seen live Americans, for fear of the repercussions," he said.

"But, to a man, each person we talked to said [that] when the Vietnamese come to our country, they 'tell your people, but your people do nothing.' "

Mr. Will believes that some Americans still are being held in Vietnamese POW camps, but not all.

"Some are living somewhat freely in the countryside with their Vietnamese families," he said. "But what keeps them in check is a psychological leash. They can't get out of the country.

"Our bravest Americans, our best heroes, are the ones they keep in camps because they wouldn't break," he said.

Talk of reopening trade with Vietnam leaves many American veterans fearful for the lives of POWs and other servicemen left in Asia, he said.

"The only thing keeping them [POWs] alive is the embargo," Mr. Will said. "That's the one last bargaining chip we have. It's people in private teams [like his group] that I feel are going to bring about their release.

"Even that won't work unless the American people get the message across to the president and the Congress that this is one of our highest priorities."

The Vietnamese people are begging for American tourists and trade, Mr. Will said.

For example, the 250 kilometers of underground tunnels that the Viet Cong used for war operations are now a tourist attraction. Before visitors take the tour, they watch a 1967 propaganda movie about how "the Americans are capitalist pigs and baby killers," he said.

"They think the American dollar is going to come over there and perform some sort of miracle and save them," Mr. Will said. "I told them that if they keep that [propaganda] up, they're going to have trouble with some of the American troops coming back to visit."

He said trade with Vietnam is of little economic value to American businesses because the country has deteriorated greatly since he visited on humanitarian missions in the 1970s.

"It looks like, per capita, that they've regressed," he said. "They've had a good rice crop and have food to eat. But other than that, there isn't much there. If our businesses think there's a gold mine over there, the only gold mine is cheap labor."

Mr. Will said that although he considers his group's trip to have been successful, he wouldn't return to Vietnam except to bring an American POW home. Dangers included walking through mine fields and exploring booby-trapped caves, he said.

"I know it was hard on my wife and children the two and a half weeks I was gone because of the danger. But they realized [I] had no choice but to do it because we refused to abandon our brothers and sisters. We just put our trust in God, and what happened, happened."

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