As Sen. John McCain descended from the Cathay Pacific Airlines flight from Hong Kong Tuesday morning, six dead American soldiers were waiting for him on the tarmac.
McCain's first order of business on this trip, his eighth trip back to Vietnam since being freed as a five-and-a-half-year POW in 1973, was a "repatriation" ceremony, where the remains of men believed to be American soldiers were handed over to the U.S. military by the Vietnamese government.
For this ceremony, the remains of six soldiers -- five found in the North, one in the South -- rested in six Vietnamese wooden boxes. They were inspected by McCain, U.S. Ambassador to Vietnam Pete Peterson and Lt. Col. Mike Peppers, detachment commander of the Vietnamese arm of the Joint Task Force-Full Accounting.
The task force, formed in 1992, has six full-time military personnel in Vietnam, and it shuttles teams in and out for what Lt. Col. Franklin Childress, task force spokesman, likens to "detective work." The task force is charged with, according to Larry Greer, spokesman for the Pentagon's POW/MIA office, "fulfilling our commitment to the fullest possible extent of accounting for our missing-in-action service members." In addition to Peppers' command, there are detachments in Thailand and Laos.
McCain, Peterson and Peppers inspected the inventory before Vietnamese officials, led by Nguyen Ba Dhung, director of the Vietnamese Office for Seeking Missing Persons, signed over the remains to American custody. "I saw a tooth in one of those boxes," McCain later reported.
After a military ceremony in which each box was placed by American fighting men (and one woman) into military caskets, American flags proudly draped on each one, the remains of the MIAs were marched into a C17 Globemaster 3 aircraft on its way first to Guam, then Hawaii. McCain, his wife, Cindy, and son Jack, 13, stood at attention with a few dozen soldiers and U.S. Embassy staffers in sweltering heat during the entire funeral procession. Afterward, McCain walked over to the soldiers, sailors, Marines and pilots who participated in the ceremony and shook their hands.
In Honolulu, the remains of the six MIAs will be analyzed at the Central Identification Laboratory, where it is hoped they will be able to be identified using database information about the 2,028 Vietnam-era American service people still missing. The Joint Task Force-Full Accounting has a pretty good idea about who the six MIAs are, Childress says, mainly because most of them were found near the remains of aircraft with identifying serial numbers. Five are believed to have been pilots.
According to Childress, since 1975, 555 Vietnam-era U.S. MIAs have been identified and accounted for. Since 1992, 239 American soldiers have been "identified," though their actual identities are not necessarily yet confirmed.
The United States spends "almost $100 million a year worldwide trying to account for the remains of soldiers" from World War II, the Korean War, the Cold War and the Vietnam War, reports Greer.
The most recent soldier identified before Tuesday was on April 17, when the task force received the remains of an Air Force colonel lost in North Vietnam in 1966. According to Childress, American and Vietnamese anthropologists work together to analyze remains and determine, "based on the shape of bones, or dental remains," whether they are those of an American or a Vietnamese.
"Sometimes the remains are so fragmentary, you can't tell," Childress says. "Sometimes the remains are only the size of a thumbnail. Other times, it turns out to be an animal."
Some of McCain's harshest critics back in the States are with the more extreme camps of the POW/MIA community; they accuse McCain and the U.S. military of various conspiracies involving missing Vietnam-era soldiers. Childress dismisses suggestions that great lengths aren't being taken to recover the soldiers.
"The only thing I can say is we have people here working as hard as they can under the most arduous and difficult circumstances," he says. These include unbelievably harsh weather, a corrupt government and remains that are more than a quarter-century old.
Still, the members of the joint task force soldier on, Childress says, pointing out that 99 members just flew in today from McCord Air Force Base in Washington state, on the same C17 Globemaster 3. "These are great Americans. And when you ask them, 'Why do you do it? Why do you care?' they will tell you that they do it for the families."
"It's a sacred honor, being part of this," Childress says. "It's a very honorable thing. There's an old tradition in the military to never leave the dead on the battlefield." And though it has been almost 25 years since the fall of Saigon, he says, the joint task force is doing everything it can to honor that tradition.