The Phantom Menace

Are American POWs still being held in Southeast Asia?

Upon his return to the U.S., Gritz, who recently survived a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the chest—apparently the result of a suicide attempt—became a major embarrassment to the Reagan administration. Instead of coming home with American prisoners, he showed up with a series of videotaped interviews with Sa and other Burmese sources asserting that the CIA played an integral role in the Golden Triangle's international heroin trade. Gritz's misadventures in Burma seem to confirm what only makes sense:there's no reason to believe that any U.S. POWs are being held in Vietnam.

Sanchez agrees. "It's hard to hide people [in Vietnam]," she said. "It's pretty open. The likelihood that the Viet Cong still has POWs 30 years later holed up somewhere is probably zero. They'd have to be 55 or 60 years old by now. The reality is the VC, if they had these prisoners alive, would probably have done away with them by now rather than face the liability."

Unlike Dornan—or Rambo, Chuck Norris or Bo Gritz, for that matter—Sanchez has actually come to the aid of POWs in Vietnam, only the prisoners didn't happen to be American. Shortly after she beat Dornan in the November 1996 election, Sanchez spearheaded a legislative effort to recognize and provide reparations to dozens of former South Vietnamese commandos who had been captured by the North Vietnamese, in some cases after parachuting directly into their hands.

For years, the Vietnamese commandos had slowly perished of disease and semistarvation in political prisons in Vietnam. All the while, the U.S. government—especially the CIA, which had sent the commandos to their doom—refused to do anything to help the survivors, perhaps fearing the public embarrassment that would follow. It was not until years after they were released from Vietnamese prisons that—thanks mainly to Sanchez—the commandos finally got their paychecks from Washington, D.C.

Nonetheless, the POW-MIA lobby in the U.S. doesn't seem to like Sanchez one bit, which is understandable given that she unceremoniously ended the political career of its greatest ally, Dornan. A Web site called the Advocacy and Intelligence Index for Prisoners of War-Missing in Action (www.aiipowmia.com), an electronic library of POW-related matters, posted a March 16 letter written by Sanchez to the U.S. ambassador to Vietnam, Douglass "Pete"Peterson, who is also a Vietnam veteran and former POW.

The letter asked for Peterson's help in pressuring the Vietnamese to speed up the resettlement of refugees seeking entry into the U.S. "For those of you not familiar with Ms. Sanchez," the Web site noted, "she is the House candidate who took Bob Dornan's congressional seat amidst allegations of massive voter fraud. Nice letter, but the words POW-MIA are glaringly absent."

Meanwhile, the Vietnamese people, who suffered the lion's share of the carnage wrought by the war—including more than 1 million dead and hundreds of thousands missing—seem to have put the past behind them. According to countless books and articles—Christopher Hunt's Sparring With Charlie and Charles Rappleye's May 6 OCWeekly article, "Everyone Hustles Now"—American tourists are greeted with warmth and affection by the Vietnamese.

One of the more famous witnesses to this friendly display is U.S. Senator John McCain (R-Arizona), who spent six years in Vietnam's infamous wartime prison, the Hanoi Hilton, after being shot down over Hanoi's central lake. Long considered a hero because of his status as a war veteran and former POW, McCain conducted his own investigation into reported sightings of POWs in Southeast Asia, which he concluded were groundless. McCain also bucked the Republican Party—and particularly Dornan—to support Clinton's 1994 decision to normalize trade relations with Vietnam, thus prompting an outraged Dornan, who avoided combat in Korea by enrolling in Los Angeles acting classes, to publicly brand McCain a "traitor."

Although Sanchez seems sincere in her effort to convince Americans that there is virtually no chance that any American POWs are still alive in Vietnam, it is a testament to the power of the MIA myth that she refuses to officially rule out the possibility. A day after her high-level March 29 meeting with officials in Vietnam, Sanchez told reporters: "Actions to investigate live-sighting reports must be considered a high priority, and resources must be committed to find any Americans still held captive in Vietnam."

In an interview with the Weekly, Sanchez revealed that two more reports of live sightings of American POWs had already surfaced since her return from Vietnam. She could provide no further details, saying only that the Pentagon, which also refused to comment, was investigating the reported sightings.

"We make a commitment to our soldiers that we'll do everything we can to bring them back. It's very comforting for people to know that," Sanchez said. "But for the families, it may be more than they can accept to say that, at this point . . . it's pretty much done and finished."

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