National Commander Michael D. Helm helps out at a JPAC excavation in Saravan Province, Laos. (Photo by John Raughter)

Commander brings MIA issues to Vietnam, Laos

“For the families.” That’s what National Commander Michael D. Helm said repeatedly when explaining why it was important for him to travel to a remote village in Vietnam and one of the highest mountain ranges in Laos to witness MIA recovery sites firsthand.

Helm has some experience in knowing the importance of bringing fallen heroes back to their homeland and families. His cousin, Air Force Capt. Danny Thomas has been missing since 1971. Officials from the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command believe they have found his OV-10 in Vietnam and will begin an intensive recovery effort soon.

“This isn’t just about Danny,” Helm said. “This is about all of them. We are not here because we support the communist governments of Laos and Vietnam. We don’t. But we have to cooperate and work together if we are going to bring our heroes home. Vietnam and Laos also have missing veterans.

"The war has been over for 40 years and if we can share information to recover the remains of servicemembers from both sides, we need to do it.”

The sentiment was shared by Vietnamese Deputy Foreign Minister Ha Kim Ngoc, who met with Helm Nov. 14 in Hanoi. “There have been many advancements made in our political, social and diplomatic relationship over the past 20 years,” Ha said. “I want to thank the U.S. government for helping us with our own humanitarian issues. We know the very important role that The American Legion plays in talking to Congress. I think this helps overcome the consequences of war and heals the wounds of both nations.”

Ha added that Vietnam has gone to great lenghths to open its archives to learn the whereabouts of remaining Americans that are MIA.

Helm, was accompanied by his brother, Jim, a Vietnam war veteran who served with the 5th Special Forces Group in DaNang and Khe Sanh.

“I wanted to come back to see how the country has changed since I left,” Jim Helm said. “If it can benefit both countries, there is no reason not to have good relations with them. The war is over. I think the south is already pretty prosperous from what I understand. The culture there is just more ambitious and industrious. I don’t see quite the same progress being made in Laos.”

The Helms also share the distinction of being the first official guests of the new U.S. Embassy in Vientiane, Laos, where they met with Ambassador Daniel A. Clune and observed the first raising of the U.S. flag at the new facility. The Legion delegation was later briefed by government officials on MIA recovery efforts.

Although JPAC is facing some re-organization after a recent Inspector General’s report unveiled operational and leadership deficiencies, Commander Helm expressed gratitude for the professionalism and work ethic that he witnessed at the excavation sites.

“When I visited the Department of Montana, I witnessed the burial of a World War II airman lost in Papau, New Guinea,” he told an excavation team prior to boarding a helicopter from Ta-Oy Base Camp in Laos. “At the airman’s burial were his family. The Patriot Guard was there, the Army and Air Force had people there, the American Legion color guard was there and about 400 other people were also there. That’s how important the work that you do is.”

After arriving at an excavation site in the mountains of Salavan Province in Laos, it was quickly apparent that Helm’s visit was not just symbolic – as he spent hours shoveling soil and filling buckets with what is believed to be hallowed ground.

“Being at that site, where an A-4 pilot lost his life, was more meaningful than anything else that I have seen here,” Helm said. “This was the site of an actual crash. Finding his remains would hopefully bring some closure to his family and those he served with.”

Helm continues his Far East tour with visits to the Department of the Phillipines and plans to spend Thanksgiving serving meals to U.S. troops stationed in South Korea. His trip will also include visits to Taiwan and Okinawa, Japan. Prior to returning to the U.S. mainland, he will stop in Hawaii, where he will attend Pearl Harbor observances on Dec. 7.