National Commander Charles E. Schmidt peers through the bars into the courtyard of the Hoa Lo "Hanoi Hilton" prison. The facility now operates as a museum. (Photo by John Raughter)

Commander focuses on MIA recovery during Vietnam visit

Nearly half a century after serving as a young airman in Vietnam, American Legion National Commander Charles E. Schmidt kicked off his Far East tour by paying homage to former POWs and studying ways to obtain a full accounting for those still missing in action.

Despite logging nearly 20 hours of commercial flight time in 24 hours, Schmidt was up for an early morning briefing Tuesday by members of the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency in Hanoi and the deputy chief of mission at the U.S. Embassy in Vietnam’s capital.

“We are here for the families of those missing in action,” Schmidt said. “Not all of us returned from Vietnam. There are families waiting for closure. We are going to stay focused on this issue. I am proud that The American Legion has a resolution calling for a full accounting and I don’t imagine that the resolution will ever go away. Nor should it.”

“It is a mission that we take very seriously and we are honored to do this,” said Marine Corps Major Chad E. Bonecutter, deputy commander of DPAA Detachment Two. “There are 1,261 reasons for us to be here. That’s how many that are still missing in Vietnam.”

While much work remains in locating and identifying MIAs, 711 U.S. veterans have been identified and repatriated since the war.

Deputy Chief of Mission Susan M. Sutton said that it was the MIA issue that opened the doors for greater cooperation between the two countries on other issues. “The Vietnam-U.S. relationship is getting better and the MIA issue was the starting point for this,” she said.

Sutton said that legacy issues from the war include unexploded ordnance and U.S. concerns about human rights. Despite differences, Sutton said that the United States has a 90 percent favorable rating among the Vietnamese.

Bonecutter and Sutton both stressed the need for U.S. veterans from the Vietnam War to share any intelligence or information that they have that could lead to the location of North Vietnamese servicemembers that are missing.

“It’s a two way street,” Sutton said. "They would like to locate their missing as well. Some soldiers may have kept diaries or have information that would be very helpful to the Vietnamese in locating their remains. That cooperation can lead to further assistance in locating our MIAs, Time is not on our side, as some of the witnesses are getting older and memories fade.”

Schmidt agreed that The American Legion can help in this effort and is calling on his fellow Vietnam War veterans to share any helpful information with the DPAA or Vietnam Embassy. “In a sense, the war is still not over for these families and a price is still being paid," he said.

MIAs were not the only item on the agenda, as Schmidt paid homage to American Prisoners of War by visiting the infamous Ho Lo Prison, also known as the Hanoi Hilton.

“It was very moving to visit a place that was the scene of so much heroism and suffering by our POWs,” he said. “It’s just another reminder of why The American Legion exists: to keep the legacy of these heroes alive.”