HANOI, Vietnam (AP) — Every day, as the guards marched Thanh Dac Nguyen into the jungle for another shift of backbreaking labor, he tossed a pebble on the lump of red earth where his closest friend was buried. It was the only wayhe knew to mark the site so he could one day keep his promise.
Nguyen and Le Xuan Deo, both former South Vietnamese soldiers, were imprisoned together at a re-education camp by the northern communists who took control of the country after the Vietnam War. When Deo fell fatally ill with chills and a high fever that was likely dysentery, Nguyen risked being beaten by the guards to sneak into his friend’s quarters and say goodbye.
He was a minute too late.
“When Deo died his eyes (were) open, very, very big,” Nguyen recalls. “It means he don’t want to go, and he was very, very upset before he died. So I tell him, ‘Don’t worry, I try to contact with your family.'”
More than three decades later, Nguyen — now a 70-year-old retiree who fled to the U.S. — has returned to his homeland to honor his vow and search the jungles for his lost buddies’ graves.
Many Vietnamese believe a soul wanders aimlessly until the remains are returned to the family for a proper burial. Nguyen founded The Returning Casualty, a Houston-based organization, to find those who died in re-education camps and put them to rest at last.
The U.S. and Vietnam have long cooperated on the recovery of American troops’ remains from the war, but issues surrounding South Vietnamese soldiers are still thorny.
After the Vietnam War ended in 1975, Hanoi rounded up thousands of southern fighters who, like Nguyen, had allied with the U.S. to fight the north. They were branded as traitors and sent to re-education camps, for weeks or years, to be indoctrinated with Marxist dogma.
Time has eased much of the bitterness and suspicion. But the Vietnamese government still does not openly discuss how many fighters from the southern Army of the Republic of Vietnam were killed or remain missing, though some U.S. estimates put the number at around 250,000. South Vietnam’s former military cemetery was closed off to families after the war, and remains overrun by a tangled mess of weeds and debris.
Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Nguyen Phuong Nga said the government is taking steps to help the families of those buried in the cemeteries as a way to welcome overseas Vietnamese back to their homeland. “This is a normal humanitarian act,” she told The Associated Press.
The AP was, however, not permitted to visit a cemetery excavation site.
“Re-education camps are certainly a very sensitive issue in Vietnam, but everyone already knows that the camps existed and that people died in them,” said Stephen Maxner, director of the Vietnam Center and Archive at Texas Tech University. “That cat is out of the bag.”
But in 2006, Nguyen got the break he needed when a friend traveled to Vietnam as part of a U.S. delegation ahead of former President George W. Bush’s visit. The idea was proposed that Vietnamese-Americans should be allowed to return to find loved ones who had died in re-education camps, as a way to bring the two countries closer. Nguyen was shocked when word came that the government had agreed.
He then worked with his former enemy to gain more access to camp sites and get grids outlining grave plots. For this, some anti-communist Vietnamese-Americans have branded him a traitor, but Nguyen insists he is solely on a humanitarian mission. He has helped about 90 families locate missing or dead relatives from the camps, and recently became the first to use DNA samples to match families with buried soldiers.
“I promised with them when I was in the re-education camp,” Nguyen says. “And also I love them too because they are my comrades.”
During his time in the camps, Nguyen, a former army major, says the men were given mostly rice to eat. Medicine was scarce, despite rampant disease and battalions of deadly mosquitoes.
After Deo’s death, Nguyen made sure his friend was buried at a site just outside the camp in the jungle, away from the other graves so he would have no trouble later finding it. He stopped whenever he could to pray or leave flowers, always dropping a stone on the mound.
At one point Nguyen himself suffered a bout of life-threatening diarrhea. He prayed to everyone he could think of, from Buddha to the Virgin Mary, and called out to Deo and his other dead friends’ spirits. If he survived, he swore, he would find a way to give them a proper burial.
Nguyen served nine years and five months in a number of camps. After being released in 1984, it took him another six years and a federal resettlement program to reach the U.S.
There, Nguyen worked long hours seven days a week at a convenience store in Houston and on the side as a driving instructor for just $800 a month. He was forced to abandon the promise he had made, at least until he raised and educated his five children. He taught himself English, and became a paralegal helping to translate for other Vietnamese immigrants.
When Nguyen made his first trip back in 2008, Camp No. 6, carved out of the thick jungle in the mountains of northern Vietnam, was his first stop. With Deo’s wife and daughter at his side, he found his dear friend’s marker.
“There is only one grave there in the jungle,” Nguyen recalls. “That’s him. I remember the location.”
Deo’s remains were taken home to central Vietnam, where he was laid to rest at last. But the work of connecting other families with their loved ones had only started.
Daniel Luong from Los Angeles learned about Nguyen’s group from an ad in a Vietnamese newspaper. Luong was just 12 years old in 1976 when he last saw his father, a former artillery captain, at a re-education camp in the southern Mekong Delta. He bid his dad goodbye during Vietnam’s biggest holiday, the Lunar New Year known as Tet, but could not hug him because the guards wielding AK-47s were standing too close.
When Luong and his mother returned for their next visit, the prisoners were gone, and no one knew where. Months later, a few more letters came postmarked from the northern capital of Hanoi. Then they stopped.
Luong’s mother wrote to Vietnamese officials, demanding to know if he was still alive. Eventually, a death certificate arrived saying Luong Van Hoa had died of malaria in northern Lang Da.
“Back then, the war was over. We were nothing. We were the lowest caste of our society, and it was a real struggle to survive,” Luong says. “There was no way anyone could go visit his grave.”
The family boarded a rickety boat in 1979 and fled for the U.S., along with thousands of other so-called Vietnamese boat people. Luong eventually graduated from California State University, Northridge. But his father continued to haunt him.
Last July, Nguyen and Luong traveled together to the former site of the Lang Da re-education camp in northern Vietnam. It was the first time the Vietnamese government permitted the excavation of an entire cemetery.
On a grassy hill above the river valley, they burned incense and prayed.
Luong, now 47, quickly spotted a headstone with his father’s name and hometown. It was the closest he’d been to him since they said goodbye 35 years ago.
“It brought tears to my eyes,” he recalls. “Tears of joy and sadness.”
In the cemetery, workers dug with shovels and hoes, and dusted off skulls and leg bones still wrapped in army green cloth. They did not find dog tags or other forms of identification, but bone samples for DNA analysis were sent to a forensics lab at the University of North Texas.
The team recovered 12 sets of remains from the 32 bodies buried there. The others were believed to have been removed years earlier by relatives still living in Vietnam. And with headstones moved or missing altogether, Nguyen worried some remains could have been taken by the wrong families.
But after nearly a year to the day of finding that tombstone, Luong got the news: His father was a positive DNA match. He had finally found him.
Luong says he will wait until the government grants permission for all of those recovered from the camp graveyard to be moved to a temple in the former Saigon. That way, his father and the men he died with will have people to pray for them.
One other positive DNA match was returned, and Nguyen hopes more relatives will come forward for testing.
He says he has much more work to do and hopes that eventually the remains of his fallen brothers can be given a proper burial at the former South Vietnam military cemetery in Bien Hoa.
But as long as the men are entombed within the boundaries of the re-education camps, he says, their souls remain in prison.
ID. Last Name, Initial and First Name
- Ha, Van Chung
- Nguyen, Van Chi
- Luc, Van Chung
- Luong, Dinh Thom
- Grave Tomb Number 13-No Name
- Nguyen, Van Tri
- Giap, Van Hung
- Do, Van Thong
- Hoang, Van Khue
- Nguyen, Duc Thinh
- Phan, Van Canh
- Bui, Van Vu
- Nguyen, Van Quy
- Hoang, Van Quang
- Nguyen, Thanh Phong
- Nguyen, Van Dung
- Tran, Van Hieu
- Grave Tomb Number 18 – No Name
- Grave Tomb Number 19 – No Name
- Grave Tomb Number 20 – No Name
- Grave Tomb Number 21 – No Name
- Do, Dinh The
- Nguyen, Le Tinh
- Vo, Thanh Tam
- Grave Tomb Number 25 – No Name
- Grave Tomb Number 26- No Name
- Grave Tomb Number 27- No Name
- Grave Tomb Number 28- No Name
- Grave Tomb Number 29 No Name
- Grave Tomb Number 30 No Name
- Grave Tomb Number 31No Name
- Grave Tomb Number 32 No Name
- Grave Tomb Number 33- No Name
- Hau, Van Nghia
- Nguyen, Van Luu
- Nguyen, Van Nong
- Grave Tomb Number 37 – No Name
- Grave Tomb Number 38 – No Name
- Grave Tomb Number 39 – No Name
- Grave Tomb Number 40 – No Name
- Grave Tomb Number 41 – No Name
- Grave Tomb Number 42 – No Name
- Grave Tomb Number 43 – No Name
- Trang, Van Bon
- Nguyen, Xuan Minh
- Lang, Van Chu
- Grave Tomb Number 47 – No Name
- Grave Tomb Number 48 – No Name
- Grave Tomb Number 49 – No Name
- Grave Tomb Number 50 – No Name
- Cao, Kim Chan (return home – In New Mexico) *
- Grave Tomb Number 52 – No Name
- Grave Tomb Number 53 – No Name
- Grave Tomb Number 54 – No Name
- Grave Tomb Number 55 – No Name
- Grave Tomb Number 56 – No Name
- Grave Tomb Number 57 – No Name
- Grave Tomb Number 58 – No Name
- Grave Tomb Number 58 – No Name
- Nguyen, Van Minh
- Hoang, Van Toan
- Nguyen, Van Nhan
- Grave Tomb Number 63 – No Name
- Grave Tomb Number 64 – No Name
- Grave Tomb Number 65 – No Name
- Grave Tomb Number 66 – No Name
- Grave Tomb Number 67 – No Name
- Grave Tomb Number 68 – No Name
- Grave Tomb Number 69 – No Name
- Grave Tomb Number 70- No Name
- Grave Tomb Number 71 – No Name
- Grave Tomb Number 72 – No Name
- Grave Tomb Number 73 – No Name
- Grave Tomb Number 74 – No Name
- Grave Tomb Number 75 – No Name
- Grave Tomb Number 76 – No Name
- Grave Tomb Number 77 – No Name
- Grave Tomb Number 78 – No Name
- Nguyen, Yen Luong
- Phung, Tan Phuong
- Grave Tomb Number 81 – No Name
- Grave Tomb Number 82 – No Name
- Pham, Canh
- Grave Tomb Number 84 – No Name
- Grave Tomb Number 85 – No Name
- Vu, Sinh
- Tran, Tu
- Grave Tomb Number 88 – No Name
- Nguyen, Quang
- Grave Tomb Number 89 – No Name
- Grave Tomb Number 90 – No Name
- Dao, Van Dao
- Grave Tomb Number 93 – No Name
- Grave Tomb Number 94 – No Name
- Nguyen, Quang Quyen
- Grave Tomb Number 96 – No Name
- Nguyen, Ha Dang
- Nguyen, Van Le
- Nguyen, Van Dao
- Nguyen, Van Thang
- Luong, Van Giao
- Grave Number 102 – No Name
- Nguyen, Ha Du
- Grave Number 104 – No Name
- Pham, Van De
- Dinh, Quang
- Tran, Quang
- Grave Number 111- No Name
- Grave Number 112 – No Name
- Grave Number 119 – No Name
- Vuong, Huan
- Truong, Chinh
- Nguyen, Van Hung
- Grave Number 123 – No Name
- Grave Number 124 – No Name
- Grave Number 125 – No Name
- Grave Number 126 – No Name
The last grave numbered 126, but we found only 117 graves. There were 9 graves became flatten. There were no sight of graves.
Timothy Swanson, Chief of the Humanitarian Resettlement Section at the US Consulate, meets with Chairman Thanh Nguyen of TRC in November
Brian Aggeler, Counselor of Political Affairs at the US Embassy, meets with Chairman Thanh Nguyen of TRC in October
While in Vietnam last October and November, TRC met with US officials at the Embassy and Consulate regarding our efforts in the reeducation camps.
Mr. Brian Aggeler, Counselor of Political Affairs at the US Embassy in Hanoi, pledged his support to our humanitarian project. During the meeting, we discussed the most efficient and tactful way to solicit information and permits from the Vietnamese government.
After this meeting, Mr. Aggeler introduced us to Mr. Timothy Swanson, Chief of the Humanitarian Resettlement Section at the US Consulate General in Saigon. He oversees the immigration of former US allies in Vietnam to the United States under the Orderly Departure Program (closed in 1994 and reopened in 2005). This program was established as the Humanitarian Operation in 1979 to allow for the immigration of former South Vietnamese officials and soldiers who would suffer discrimination and abuse under the new regime. It was later extended to include the wives and, under the McCain Amendment, the children of those who died in reeducation camps. These family members of the deceased must produce their relative’s death certificate with their application for resettlement.
In Saigon, we brought the cases of three families who were denied resettlement because they could not produce a death certificate to Mr. Swanson’s attention. While the reeducation camps were still in operation, many families were not informed of their relative’s whereabouts and some did not receive a death certificate upon their relative’s death. Having recently assisted these families with the recovery of their relative’s remains, Chairman Thanh Nguyen offered to act as a witness confirming that their relative had indeed passed away in the camps. The families also provided photos and other documents proving their relationship with the deceased.
In the future, we hope to be able to provide DNA testing of remains, so that the families will know for certain that they have finally found their loved ones. In lieu of a death certificate, DNA test results will prove invaluable to those who wish to apply for resettlement. We are currently seeking a meeting with the Joint POW-MIA Accounting Command (JPAC) at the US Embassy in Hanoi, a detachment of the US Military already using DNA testing to confirm the identities of American remains discovered in Vietnam.
December 15th, 2008 | Category: Government Policy
Right after the fall of South Vietnam, Bien Hoa National Military Cemetery where laid the rest of over 16,000 ARVN soldiers and Republic of Vietnam personnel and services, became prohibited and under controlled by military zone 7, managed by Military Management Committee. The Bien Hoa National Military Cemetery was destroyed day by day and sold partial of the land to private investor, the foot print from about 125 acres became 55 acres. The toilet has built right inside of the heart of Bien Hoa National Military Cemetery.
Thuong Tiec, a memorial statue to the sacrifice made by former Republic of Vietnam soldiers, located at Bien Hoa before April 1975, then it was destroyed after April 30th, 1975
Bien Hoa National Military Cemetery, 2008, this scene of overgrown wild grasses and trees, broken headstones, and mounds of fresh earth was once the site of the national military cemetery of the former Republic of Vietnam. Inaugurated in 1966, it housed the remains of the soldiers of the South Vietnamese military who passed away in the latter half of the war. Now, decades later, this abandoned and vandalized cemetery outside of Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City) is the last resting place for the old South Vietnamese regime in Vietnam. Since the takeover, their cemeteries have been paved over and replaced with industrial parks and playgrounds, often without proper reburial of remains.
In 2006, the Vietnamese government opened the cemetery to public use, with a clear purpose: if anyone may bury their dead here, then it is no longer an ARVN military cemetery, and the final neglected monument to the old government will fade from the country’s memory. Now called Binh An Cemetery, a brick kiln and factory has already been established on a portion of the site where the honored graves of the dead once stood. Untended and desecrated, the cemetery throbs with the pain of an open wound, where those who should have been honored and respected were outcast instead.
Bien Hoa Cemetery in 1994 to 2012, compared with a photo taken before 1975
A North Vietnamese military cemetery in Vietnam
A memorial statue in Vietnam honoring the North Vietnamese soldiers
One need not look far to find historical examples of post-war respect for the dead. Just as history is littered with examples of prejudice, discrimination and vengeful behavior on the part of peoples and governments, it has also witnessed the overcoming of such prejudices in favor of a common future.
The American Civil War (1861-1865) deeply divided North and South in a bloody and brutal conflict that pitted brother against brother. For years after the war ended, the two sides remained hostile and embittered. Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia was founded during the war as a military cemetery by Union General Montgomery C. Meigs on the property of Confederate General Robert E. Lee. After the war, it was considered a Union cemetery, even though hundreds of Confederate soldiers were also buried there. As a result, families of the fallen Confederate soldiers were not allowed to decorate the graves of their relatives and, in some cases, were not even permitted to enter the cemetery.
Finally, in 1900, the US Congress authorized the establishment of a special section for Confederate war dead, as a gesture of national reconciliation. Almost 500 Confederate officers, soldiers, wives, and civilians rest in concentric circles around a towering monument to the Confederate dead. Of the many inscriptions on the base of the monument, this one, attributed to the Reverend Randolph Harrison McKim, captures the spirit of the memorial:
Confederate Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery
Not for fame or reward
Not for place or for rank
Not lured by ambition
Or goaded by necessity
But in simple
Obedience to duty
As they understood it
These men suffered all
Dared all-and died
Another example from the American Civil War, Camp Chase, located in Columbus, Ohio, was a Union POW camp for Confederate soldiers. Those who died while in captivity were buried here. After the war ended, the site was allowed to deteriorate until restored at the turn of the century. Now well tended as a historical site, at its center rests a memorial with the word, “Americans,” chiseled in its arch.
In 1954, less than 10 years after WWII, the German War Graves Commission extended its mission to the establishment and upkeep of cemeteries abroad. In Normandy alone, the Service d’Entretien des Sépultures Militaires Allemandes (German Military Burials Maintenance Service or S.E.S.M.A.) maintains six main German cemeteries honoring WWII war dead. In the UK, the Commonwealth Graves Commission oversees the Cannok Chase German War Cemetery of WWI and II dead. The fallen German soldiers, hardened enemies to the British and French in both wars, are treated with respect. Though they were enemy combatants, they share a common humanity, and should be allowed to rest in peace. It is difficult to recognize this in a wartime enemy, but it is necessary to reconcile with the past and move forward.
These men may have fought on opposing sides, but they were all Vietnamese soldiers who sacrificed their lives for the future of their cherished country. How can we allow some to be glorified while others are cast aside and forgotten? The Vietnamese government shames itself by allowing these offenses to continue, yet the administration even now has a chance to do what is honorable by respecting each of its fallen countrymen. To do so, the government must cooperate with our efforts.
The Vietnamese American Foundation has applied for a permit to restore the Bien Hoa National Military Cemetery. When given permission, we intend to properly bury the unidentifiable remains we discover in reeducation camp graves and a group of unknown soldiers found in a mass grave on the grounds. While those who died in the reeducation camps were civilians imprisoned by the Vietnamese government after the war ended, many were ARVN soldiers and officers, and all were servants of their country who deserve distinction for their sacrifice.
In Vietnam, there will be a place to remember the past. Left untended, the wounds of the war cannot heal.
Selected articles on Bien Hoa Cemetery compiled by an American Vietnam War Veteran
German War Graves Commission Homepage (In English)
Confederate Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery
National Park Service Lesson on Camp Chase in Columbus, Ohio, USA
On July 19th, we have a busy day in Hanoi. At nine o’clock, we meet with the U. S. Embassy officials. At lunchtime, we meet with a journalist from Associate Press. In the afternoon, we think we’ll meet with an officer from the Vietnamese Ministry of Foreign Affairs (although our meeting is not confirmed). Of course, the topic of conversation will be a small cemetery, across Thac Ba lake, outside the village of Lang Da. The lake is a beautiful sight, and the VNG intends that it become an ecological tourist destination, a modern idea found in a country determined maintain relevance in a competitive world.
Several decades ago, Lang Da was not such a welcoming sight for the men who occupied the reeducation camp in the forest. Twenty-seven men died in the camp while it was in operation, most likely from hardship and disease. At TRC, we don’t dwell on notions like justification or accountability for the camp. We come for the twenty-seven buried at the camp who want to go home.
TRC has this opportunity by permission of the VNG. The government is allowing TRC to recover all the remains, and to take DNA samples to match the remains with their families. Regardless of what may have happened at Lang Da in the past decades, today Vietnam demonstrates that it belongs in this modern world among nations who also have faced their difficult pasts. TRC recognizes the cooperation of the VNG at Lang Da, and we hope that the cooperation continues as TRC seeks the remains at other camps.
July 16th, 2010 | Category: In The Field
Recently in Saigon, a construction crew uncovered the remains of 81 ARVN soldiers. The crew is building the new HCM Transportation University at the site of the abandoned Quang Trung National Recruit Training Center of the Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam). The construction crew quickly notified VAF of the find.
The remains were scattered throughout the area, indicating that the soldiers died in a firefight defending Saigon against North Vietnamese Army forces. Thirty-six of the soldiers still wore their ID tags. The ID tags of 6 of the soldiers are burnt and bent, suggesting that they died in an artillery barrage.
VAF recovered the remains with proper ceremonial honors. Then they took the remains to a temple to be attended until retrieved by family members. The following soldiers are identified by their ID tags. If you believe that one of the soldiers is your relative, please contact VAF for information.
- Cao, Van Tinh
- Tran, Van Sang
- Nguyen, Van Quoi
- Nguyen, Van Chuc
- Tran, Dinh Dang
- Bình Dinh
- Pham, Van Thang
- Ngo, Van Duc
- Le, Thanh Cong
- Dao, Xuan Sinh
- Nguyen, Tang Dao
- Bui, Van Quang
- Huynh, Van Khoe
- Kieu, Gia Long
- Nguyen, Van Hai
- Van Lam
- Le, Van Manh
- Lam, Van Ho
- Trang, Van Quan
- Tran, Van Ban
- Do, Van Dung
- Tran, Van Tham
- Le, Van Trai
- Nguyen, Dinh Hien
- Pham Dinh
- Nguyen, Van Cat
- Tran, Huu Duyen
- Bui, Hoang Sam
- Pham, Van Muoi
- Le, Xuan Quang
- Vu, Van BaoVu
- Nguyen, Van Hung
- Nguyen, Van Tuan
- Nguyen, Van Ma
- Nguyen, Van Lua
May 11th, 2011 | Category: In The Field
Many of you have asked why we have not reported our progress for several months. This was our thinking. Although TRC is strictly a humanitarian initiative, our mission can have unintended political consequences, if not handled thoughtfully and with respect for the governments affected. Of course, since 2006, TRC’s Founder, Thanh Dac Nguyen, has engaged the Vietnamese government in discussions about the recovery of the remains. Mr. Nguyen’s first opportunity to speak to the VNG came while he attended a conference in Vietnam with a group of American lawyers. Eventually he earned the trust of important officials in the VNG, and gained permission to search parts of the country for individual sets of remains in behalf of families who sought his assistance. Mr. Nguyen enjoyed success, and as his success preceded him, he made more trips to Vietnam. As TRC’s star rose, the initiative picked up momentum. We saw a real possibility that we could be an instrument of reconciliation. We believed that if reconciliation were a possible outcome of TRC’s work, then it would be wise to engage the VNG and the U. S government at the diplomatic level. TRC did not want to step on the wrong toes, and certainly we did not want to say anything to offend. We didn’t want to say or do anything publicly, without a better view of the big picture.
TRC’s General Counsel, Wesley S. Coddou, first contacted the U.S. Embassy in Hanoi to arrange a meeting between Embassy officials and Mr. Nguyen. The meeting went well, and later officials requested a summary proposal of TRC’s objective in Vietnam, prepared by Mr. Coddou, and approved and signed by Mr. Nguyen. After reviewing TRC’s proposal, the officials concluded that the initiative was valuable, and forwarded the proposal to Washington D. C. for further review. Not long afterward, a U.S. Senator visited Hanoi and officials briefly discussed the proposal with him. The Senator then suggested that TRC contact his staff. Mr. Coddou did and in September 2009, Mr. Coddou and Mr. Nguyen traveled to Washington D. C. for meetings with the U.S. Department of State, the Senator, and officials at the Vietnamese Embassy in Washington. Those meetings brought forth advice and insight that kicked TRC into high gear. Today, TRC maintains contact with both governments, and both governments want TRC to succeed.
We would like to take this opportunity to thank the governments of both countries for opening the way for our work.
July 12th, 2010 | Category: Government Policy
At the Lang Da camp cemetery, TRC faces a new challenge. Six families have come forth to recover remains of their loved ones at the camp, but there are no grave markers. To complicate the matter, there are over twenty graves. How can the families know which remains belong to a particular family? The solution is DNA analysis: recover all the remains located at the site, and test for matching DNA. The families have already provided their own DNA samples for analysis.
Many professionals have helped TRC in its mission, and the DNA analysts have been among the most supportive. Some of the best in the nation have come forth to assist. TRC’s first door opened at Family Tree DNA, a Houston based service that uses state of the art DNA technology to discover the ancestry of its clients (See the websitewww.familytreedna.com for interesting information about DNA technology, including an interview with BBC.).
The company’s President and CEO, Bennett Greenspan, promptly replied to TRC’s request for assistance. Mr. Greenspan and TRC’s General Counsel, Wesley S. Coddou, spoke at length about the process of DNA analysis, and in particular, the importance of careful handling of the DNA samples taken from the remains. Mr. Greenspan alerted TRC to the problem of cross contamination of DNA. He warned that cross contamination can be caused by something as simple as a bead of sweat transferred to the bone. Mr. Greenspan makes himself available to TRC for additional advice, for which TRC is grateful.
Mr. Greenspan was also kind enough to introduce Mr. Coddou to Megan Smolenyak, an eminent genealogist, author, researcher and contributor to the PBS series Ancestors. She has been Chief Family Historian and spokesperson forAncestry.com, the largest genealogical company in the world, creator of RootsTelevision.com, a pioneering online channel of free videos and winner of four Telly Awards, and founder of UnclaimedPersons.org, a volunteer group that assists coroners and medical examiners. Visit Ms. Smolenyak’s website at www.honoringourancestors.com to read about her tireless work in the genealogical field. Ms. Smolenyak also quickly responded to TRC’s request for assistance, and gave Mr. Coddou insight as to the recovery and study of remains in the context of armed conflict and social unrest (she has provided forensic consulting services to the U.S. Army to locate thousands of family members of soldiers still unaccounted for from WWI, WWII, Korea and Southeast Asia). Ms. Smolenyak also makes time in her schedule to consult with TRC.
TRC now works with the University of North Texas Center for Human Identification, Forensic Division (www.unthumanid.org). The Center is providing all DNA testing and analysis for the remains recovered at Lang Da. The Center is an extraordinary group of facilities dedicated to the identification of missing persons and the confirmation of identity of others (as in paternity cases). The Center’s laboratories support law enforcement agencies, but also humanitarian initiatives like TRC. Another important initiative supported by the Center is the mission to identify and recover children taken or sold against their will. It’s a challenge that crosses all borders in developed and underdeveloped countries alike. TRC hopes to assist the mission through its contacts in Vietnam. The cooperation between the Center and TRC to identify the remains at Lang Da and to expand the search for the children is a good example of how important initiatives can network their resources for the advancement of both.
TRC takes this opportunity again to thank Family Tree DNA, Megan Smolenyak and the North Texas University Center for Human Identification for their support and guidance.
July 14th, 2010 | Category: DNA Analysis and Identification
Many of you have asked how TRC identifies the remains of those buried in the reeducation camps. The techniques TRC uses at the sites are identical to the techniques used by archeologists at ancient burial sites. TRC’s Archeological Consultant, Julie Martin, is expert in excavation of ancient cemeteries with twenty years experience. The task is not easy. The process begins before TRC enters the site of burial. As you can see in our website gallery, first TRC relies on maps, cemetery plots and in some cases lists of the dead.
At the site, TRC often finds grave markers cut by prisoners at the camps at the time the person died. Sometimes the gravestone actually includes information about the home of the deceased. Even broken head stones are helpful. In one case, we found a broken gravestone lying in the jungle overgrowth. Carved in it was the name of the person we sought! Our team then searched the cemetery plats and found the base that matched to broken stone.
When we find the grave, and exhume the remains, we look for personal items buried with the person. Once we found a man’s food bowl buried with him. In another grave we actually found a makeshift wallet.
Earlier this year, for the first time, the Vietnamese government gave TRC permission to excavate an entire cemetery site. (In the past TRC has recovered individual sets of remains when asked to do so by family members.) The cemetery at Lang Da is threatened by a plan to construct a road through the site. The Vietnamese government recognizes TRC’s concern for the remains, if not recovered in an orderly fashion. Lang Da is a difficult site, because there are no grave markers, but TRC has the cemetery plat. Julie, our Archeological Consultant, will be onsite to direct the excavation. First, she has to find the plat on the ground. To do so, the team has to scalp the site. After all these years, the original grave cuts can be seen after the site is scalped. Julie has used the same techniques at other sites over a thousand years old. Once the team locates the graves, then the digging begins.
July 14th, 2010 | Category: DNA Analysis and Identification
After months of painstaking analysis, University of North Texas Center for Human Identification (UNTCHI) reported that the DNA lab had completed its analysis of DNA samples taken from the Lang Da camp gravesite. Of the twelve individuals recovered, eleven yielded viable DNA results. We were thrilled to hear the news, because soils in North Vietnam can be acidic, breaking down DNA at an accelerated rate.
Family members still living in Vietnam provided comparative DNA samples. As you can imagine, security of the comparative samples is important to be certain that matching remains will be reunited with the correct families. To this end, with the cooperation of the U. S. Department of State, TRC arranged for family sample collection at the U. S. Consulate in Saigon (HCMC).
First TRC sent sealed DNA collection kits to the Consulate, and notified family members of the time and date for their appointments to provide samples. The families then traveled to Saigon at the appointed time. The Consulate’s Fraud Prevention Manager confirmed identities; but the samples actually were collected by a technician from the International Organization for Migration. The technician sealed and marked the samples separately, and the Fraud Prevention Manager sent the samples by Fed Ex directly to the UNTCHI lab in Texas.
This month TRC’s President Mr. Thanh and TRC’s General Counsel Mr. Coddou met with Art Eisenberg, Co-Director of UNTICHI to discuss current TRC recovery operations. They also discussed future collaboration in Vietnam between Vietnamese American Foundation (VAF…TRC’s parent foundation) and DNA-ProKids (www.dna-prokids.org). After meeting with Dr. Eisenberg, Mr. Thanh and Mr. Coddou met with the UHR team, for a presentation of lab processes and data. They also took a fascinating tour of the lab.
At day’s end, the remains and gravesite relics carefully were loaded into TRC’s van for transport back to Houston, Texas. In Houston, the remains are kept in a Buddhist temple until they can be returned to Vietnam. Now that TRC and its families have experienced the process of DNA collection and analysis, this part of our operations will run smoothly.
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