Did America Abandon Vietnam War P.O.W.'s? Part 2

A closer look at an ugly issue

Over time there have been Pentagon officers, some even in key posts, who tried to tell the truth. Their reports found the Defense Intelligence Agency to be permeated by a "mind-set to debunk." And when the reports leaked out, the debunking machine would shift into high gear once again. Sometimes these officers were defamed as malcontents or worse.

One of those reports was done in 1986 by Eugene Tighe, who was assigned to review the work of the D.I.A. A retired Air Force Lieutenant General, Tighe had been a director of the D.I.A. after the Vietnam War.

His report said, "D.I.A. holds information that establishes the strong possibility of American prisoners being held in Laos and Vietnam." Tighe cited "a large volume of evidence."


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Prisoners alive in 1986

His original language, which was toned down by the Pentagon, had been even stronger, but regardless, Tighe had concluded that men remained alive as prisoners in 1986. The Pentagon and its allies immediately launched a smear campaign against this highly regarded intelligence officer (who died earlier this year at 72). Officials began whispering to reporters that Tighe was "not too bright," suggesting senility.

In early 1991, Colonel Millard Peck resigned in disgust after only eight months as the head of the Pentagon's POW/MIA office. In a devastating departure statement, he said, "The mind-set to 'debunk' is alive and well. It is held at all levels ... Practically all analysis is directed to finding fault with the source. Rarely has there been any effective, active follow-through on any of the sightings ... The sad fact is that ... a cover-up may be in progress. The entire charade does not appear to be an honest effort and may never have been."

Finally, Peck said, "From what I have witnessed, it appears that any soldier left in Vietnam, even inadvertently, was in fact, abandoned years ago, and that the farce that is being played is no more than political legerdemain done with "smoke and mirrors" to stall the issue until it dies a natural death."

Avoiding thoughts of Vietnam

Why has there been no wide and sustained public outcry over this national scandal? The answer is simplicity itself. When the war ended, almost everyone in America wanted to forget Vietnam, erase it, bury it. They still do. The soldiers who came home were reviled as baby killers. We shunned them because, as a culture, we have been imbued with the notion that winning is the only thing. Indeed, we have never been taught how to cope with losing anything, let alone a war. There was no constituency for the truth, no powerful lobby to stir Congress. MIA families don't command many votes.

The press participated in this national amnesia. Newspapers and television networks and radio stations had sent legions of reporters to Vietnam to cover the war and chase down Pentagon and White House untruths. Yet afterward, to my knowledge, not one major print or broadcast organization ever assigned an investigative team or any significant resources to find out what happened to the missing men, to find out if the Pentagon and White House were lying. Worse still, to hide its delinquency, the mainstream press, for the last two decades, has by and large bought the government line that no evidence exists of men left behind.

Families of missing men Over the years, no one has suffered more from this policy of deceit and cover-up than the families of the missing men. The consistent manner in which the parents, wives, and children of the MIAs have been manipulated and denied information by their government has left a great many of them not only bitter and angry, but in some cases, broken in spirit.

An episode occurred very recently that is all too typical of the trials to which our government has subjected these families. In April 1993, the wife and two daughters of Henry "Mick" Serex, an Air Force major whose radar-jamming communications plane was downed over the Demilitarized Zone in 1972, learned that a satellite photo taken less than a year earlier — on June 5, 1992 — showed what appeared to be the letters SEREX drawn into a field next to a prison in North Vietnam, not far from Haiphong.

The Serexes did not get this news from the Pentagon (which in 20 years, had told them almost nothing about Henry Serex except that he had been declared Killed in action/Body not recovered). They learned it instead when the photo was mentioned on a television talk show by an MIA activist.

Confused and distressed

Confused and distressed, the Serexes began pressing the Pentagon for more information. It took months of pleading and arguing — and the intervention of Senator Smith — before the Pentagon reluctantly agreed to give the family a briefing on the photo in Washington.

The briefing took place in January of this year at the C.I.A.'s photo lab, which is shared by the Pentagon. Filled with nervous anticipation, the Serexes flew in from the West Coast — only to be the latest family to feel misled and bamboozled by the debunking machine.

Specifically, for nine hours over two days, about 15 D.I.A. officials filled the room and, as one, told the family members that the images they thought they were seeing on a print made from the electronic imagery were neither manmade nor letters spelling out the name "Serex" in capitals on the ground. Instead, the officials said, these images were "a configuration" and "changes in texture" that disappeared when "enhanced" on the computer screen. What they saw were "anomalies", they were told. The Serexes went home feeling empty and emotionally used. The truth, they believed, had been withheld from them.

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