Monday, April 7, 2014

13 Years Ago

Thirteen years ago today, a little over a year before I returned to the MIA mission, a Mi-17 crashed in the Vietnamese central province of Quang Binh killing seven Americans and nine Vietnamese passengers and crew conducting search and recovery advance work for the Joint Task Force-Full Accounting.  I personally knew two of the Americans who were onboard the helicopter and miss their friendship still.

Thirteen years is a long time, but it doesn't seem that long ago since the crash.  Everyone on that helicopter was on a noble mission to search for those missing from the Vietnam War, and though they might not have known their fate that day when they stepped onto the helicopter, I think everyone who takes a ride like that takes at least a second to ponder what lies ahead.  

Below is an article I found online describing the incident.  It was a tragedy I hope never happens again, and I take this time to extend my appreciation for the men, both American and Vietnamese, and their families for their sacrifice that day.


Saturday April 7 11:01 PM ET
16 Die in Vietnam Helicopter Crash 
By DAVID THURBER, Associated Press Writer 

HANOI, Vietnam (AP) - A helicopter carrying a team searching for Americans missing in action from the Vietnam War crashed into a mountain Saturday, killing 16 people, including seven Americans.

The Russian-made MI-17 made unusual swinging movements in the air and slammed into a hillside near Thanh Tranh village in Quang Binh province's Bo Tranh district, about 280 miles south of Hanoi, local officials said.

Vietnamese officials initially reported 20 people were on board the helicopter, but changed the figure to 16 early Sunday, in line information from U.S. officials. Pentagon (news - web sites) spokesman in Washington, Lt. Cmdr. Terry Sutherland, said seven Americans and nine Vietnamese were killed in the crash. There were no survivors.

U.S. officials said the American victims were military service people, but were withholding their names until the next of kin have been notified. The cause of the mid-afternoon crash is being investigated. The sky was hazy at the time.

Local authorities began recovering the bodies early Sunday. U.S. Embassy spokesman David Monk said that U.S. officials were on their way to the site.

Monk said the team was making a preliminary visit to a possible MIA recovery site to determine whether it was worth excavating.

The U.S. military's Pacific Command said in a statement on its website that the team was ``preparing for a recovery operation involving unaccounted for Americans lost during the Vietnam war.''

A spokesman for the command in Honolulu, Lt. Sean Kelly, said the service members killed were all on a mission for Joint Task Force-Full Accounting, a group based in Camp H.M. Smith, Hawaii that investigates Americans missing from the Vietnam War.

The task force has searched for remains from the Indochina War in Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and southern China since 1992, and in recent years has expanded operations to include World War II and Korean War MIA recovery cases.

President Bush (news - web sites) expressed his condolences on Saturday and urged Americans to ``remember their sacrifice.''

``The families of the service personnel lost in today's tragic accident know better than most the contribution their loved ones made in bringing closure to scores of families across America,'' the president said in a statement issued at the White House.

``Today's loss is a terrible one for our nation,'' Bush said.

There are currently no large-scale MIA excavations under way in Vietnam, but some Americans remain in the country year-round doing advance work for future digs.

Since 1973, the remains of 591 American servicemen formerly listed as unaccounted for have been identified and returned to their families. There are 1,992 Americans still unaccounted for from the war in Southeast Asia, including 1,498 in Vietnam.

The United States spends $5 million to $6 million annually on MIA recovery operations in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia.

Quang Binh province, where the accident occurred, was the southernmost province of North Vietnam during the war, just north of the former demilitarized zone. It contains many military crash sites because it was heavily bombed during the war.

The Joint Task Force-Full Accounting program was set up by then-Defense Secretary Dick Cheney (news - web sites) in 1992.

Its teams conduct preliminary investigations of crash sites to determine whether they should be excavated. Based on their findings, sites are prepared for excavation under a schedule agreed upon by the U.S. and Vietnamese governments.

Lt. Col. Franklin Childress, a spokesman for the program, said those killed were the advance team for a 95-member team that was scheduled to leave Hawaii in late April for six separate recovery sites in Vietnam. He said they were members of the military.

The program makes about 10 such deployments per year, each lasting about a month. The terrain is rugged and often littered with debris from the war.

``Every mission is a dangerous mission,'' Childress said. ``It's a very difficult area to operate in.''

No decision has been made yet if that mission will go on as scheduled, Childress said. But Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said in a statement that the overall mission to account for the MIAs and recover their remains will continue.

Childress said the helicopter was from the Vietnamese military and the pilot was Vietnamese.

``We've been flying in this type of helicopter for a number of years, and this is the first accident,'' he said.

Monday, March 31, 2014

A Series of Unfortunate Events

It has been a very long time since I ran on the road. I encountered a series of unfortunate events about eight months ago that crippled me and kept me from one of my life's passions:  Running.  It all began after coming back from home leave last year when I experienced some very excruciating plantar fasciitis in my left foot. I suspect a new pair of shoes may have brought it on, but in reality it could have been anything.  As the plantar fasciitis gradually got better over the next couple of months, tendinitus in my left ankle set in.  My left ankle was swollen for a week before Diep made me go to the doctor - who I paid a little over a hundred U.S. to tell me what I already knew:  Rest and Ibuprofen.  As the ankle got better, I took a bus ride into town around the Lunar New Year and planted my left foot right in the way of the pneumatic door that opened very quickly and separated my big toenail from the bed of my toe. That toe issue, along wtih an already tender foot and ankle kept me from any running.

So for these long months I haven't been running. It wasn't until about two weeks ago I got back on the treadmill in Hanoi and worked up a little mileage on it.  I got up to five miles at an easy pace, and I finally got down to Danang yesterday and got a run in on the real road this morning. I ran four miles without much problem, and only a little soreness in my knee.  Hopefully, I will be able to keep it up and get some road time in Hanoi when I return.  So far I haven't had any feet problems, and that makes me hopeful I can get back in the habit.

In October last year I got up to 205 pounds because I wasn't running and I had been going on investigations that kept me from doing any exercise. Once I finished my series of investigations, I was able to drop weight with a regular exercise routine that included stationary bike and elyptical trainer in conjunction with weight training.  In the past six months I lost 15 pounds and hopefully, now that I am running again, I can keep dropping weight.  Only time will tell, but I am prone to rapid weight gains if I go just a couple of days without paying attention to what I eat... or rather, paying too much attention to food. 

I have been feeling better now that I have reached a weight that allows me to exercise longer and more vigorously, and hopefully I can keep it up.  I suppose that will depend more on my work schedule than anything else. Every time I take a significant break or go on a long temporary duty assignment I gain back everything I lost.  All I can do is make sure I don't give up.  Keep going no matter what.

Friday, March 28, 2014

The Detachment House is Haunted

The Det House is haunted. That’s the word I got from Matt Wilkes this morning when I stepped into the office.  Interesting! I know the building at 48B Tran Phu is pretty old, probably built in the 1920s or there about, and that our section of Hanoi goes back to the French colonial period. I also know Matt isn't a guy prone to drama. If it had been the other guy on duty, I may have been a little more skeptical.

Matt started the conversation talking about the weird animals we have over in that building. I naturally thought he was talking about the rats over there, something he has talked about on several occasions already.  Rats are ubiquitous in Hanoi, and the subject was a little stale, to be honest. When he mentioned the screeching in the night, I knew he was talking about the owls that reside in certain corners of the city. He didn’t know the noise was coming from owls, but after considering for a moment, he saw the probability in the source of the spooky noise.  He then started talking about the other noises:  The loud lady, the slamming doors, and the whisper in his ear at night.  I immediately dismissed the lady,and initially the slamming door because of the guards on their security rounds.  But the Vietnamese woman whispering in his ear at his bedside in the middle of the night, the one he tried to chalk up as a dream, and the doors slamming in adjacent rooms when he is the only one boarding in the building did pique my interest.  Matt said he has heard some people talk about it, and others who won’t talk about it because they don’t want us at the office thinking they are nuts.

Is the house haunted? Maybe. There is no doubt that the history and events in this area could conjure ghosts, if they exist. I will keep my ears open, maybe some good stories will come from it.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

A Soldier of the Legion

At times I forget how many people read my blog, and that leaves me a little surprised when I get a book recommendation based on a book I read and mentioned in my blog.  In these past few months, I have found myself fascinated with Vietnam in the days of early French interest.  I am slowly gaining knowledge of some structures I see in Hanoi and around the country and even learning some other tidbits here and there about Vietnamese character and culture.

The book recommendation was the title of this blog, A Soldier of the Legion. The book was written by George Mannington and it is available on Google Books for free as a PDF download.  It is also available on other sites from other collections that have been scanned.  Because I am in Vietnam, or some other reason I may not be aware of, I was not able to download the book from Google Books, and I downloaded it from another site. I would recommend Google Books, however, because the other site had about five pages missing at various points in the book. I went back to another PDF copy to fill in the blanks, but it was just a little more work than someone should have to go through to read the book.

To show my appreciation for the recommendation to one of my favorite life mentors, I will share a brief summary of the book and tell what I learned, as well.  The book was written by an Englishman, who on a whim, joined the French Foreign Legion in the late 1800s.  His description of the process is quite interesting and his follow-on assignment in Algiers and then Tonkin (North Vietnam at that time) is also captivating.  He arrived in Vietnam to catch some of the final days of the Yen The Uprising. A quick Google search for the "Yen The Uprising" shows that it was a failed attempt to revolt against French colonization in the general area of Bac Giang Province, north of Hanoi, lasting some 30 years from 1884 - 1913 by resistance forces led by Hoang Hoa Tham (The name should sound familiar since it is a common road name throughout major cities in Vietnam). Searching local web sites, there are some festivals that celebrate the independent spirit of the leaders of this revolt. 

George Mannington does a splendid job of describing the landscape of the areas where he was stationed in Nha Nam and Bo Ha Towns, and later at Bac Ninh and Hanoi. His description of the peoples both of the low and highlands is helpful to me in referencing my own feelings and opinions of the hill tribes and delta people.  The country of Bac Giang at the turn of the 20th century must have been beautiful with tigers and leopards, fowl and flora that no longer exists in those areas.  He described in detail the accomplishments of some of the French leaders and also chronologically maps the establishment of transportation lines in the northern part of Vietnam.

From the book, culturally, I was most impressed with his description of where the bats carved and painted on pagodas come from and why they are depicted.  This is something I never knew and, apparently, the seven bats represent the seven joys on earth. I even bookmarked the page, and will quote the passage:

"The ancients represented 'The Seven Joys' by as many bats, because, like our pleasures, these animals flit around us in eccentric curves; though it requires but a little patience and a light blow to bring them to our feet."

I did bookmark one other passage that I thought showed a lot of insight and also that people have not changed much in the hundred plus years since this book was written:
 "The French, Italian, German, Austrian, or any other European soldier is very much like our own.  He has his virtues and his vices; and the stronger his race and national character, the more likely is he to possess a superabundance of the latter."

All in all, the read was worth the short time it takes to cover his experience. It was also a great opener for the current book I am reading about an English wife to a French doctor who was sent to Vietnam to work with Alexandre Yersin at the Pasteur Institute in Nha Trang.  In her introduction, she covers very clearly the history up to her time in or around 1904 of what is now Vietnam.  She also describes the three regions then known as Tonquin, Annam and Cochin China, giving me a better understanding of the areas as they were then.  The book is titled On & Off Duty in Annam by Gabrielle M Vassal. The book is a bit longer, but so far is very interesting.

Monday, January 6, 2014

New Day, New Year, and Happy Birthday to Me!

So today is the first day back at work for me since 20 December. It's a new day, new year, and a birthday occasion for me.  I am a little tardy in making my new year's declarations, but I am sure I am forgiven by my meager audience.

The fact is, not unlike a lot of people out there, I don't have any new year's resolutions this year unless keeping up with a lot of changes I incorporated last year counts.  For example, I have all but eliminated carbonated beverages from my diet, except for beer on the weekend; I have made an effort to drink alcoholic beverages only once or twice a week, and in moderation; and I have a pretty decent work out program I have going and I have been dropping 1 - 2 pounds a week (exclusive of the two week break I took when I gained five pounds).

Due to an unforeseen hiccup with office transportation, I will also be riding my motorbike to work from now on. This is something I wanted to start after the fiscal year budget constraints we had in October, but it wasn't until this other issue that I have convinced Diep this is the way to go. I have a plan for rain days, and I think it will work.

The two weeks off I took during the Christmas and New Year break was good for me. Granted, I was a little bored in Saigon and Nha Trang, but I think I needed some idle time to re-cock for this year... it will be a big one.  I wasn't bored because Saigon and Nha Trang are boring, but rather because I have been to both of these cities quite a few times already - been there, done that.  I was happy to see that Diep's mother was healthy and happy this time back. We had dinner with her at Pizza Hut in the big city and I think everyone had a good time.

This is the year Megan goes to big kids' school in the U.S.  I will miss her immensely, but it also marks an interesting crossroads for Diep and I.  We will be able to do a lot of things that work for two, but not three. I have a feeling we will be doing shoestring budget travel in the region a lot more in the next couple of years.  Diep loves that stuff, but I will have to get used to it.  One example of cutting costs is the difference between bus travel and air travel in Vietnam.  If you have time to spare, bus travel is infinitely cheaper than air travel. Diep prefers the sleeper buses that are so ubiquitous in the south now, but I will definitely have to get used to that since the seats are great for much shorter people, but require a certain positioning to gain comfort for those people of universally average height or more.

So with this new year, at the age of 48, I still have dreams of progressing in life.  I have not reached a point where I am just happy to be where I am and hope to just sustain. I want to improve and learn in several areas, and I think I will reach some goals I have set for myself.  With the new year comes hope. It feels good!

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Myths Parents Teach Their Children

There is no playbook for parents when it comes to raising children. Sure, there are parenting guides and books written by experts on how you should raise your children.  I won't get into my opinion about these "so called" experts because even those who have done studies on hundreds or, perhaps, even thousands of children, haven't tried to raise my child. I am not saying I have a difficult child because she isn't. But, just like every other child in this world, she is unique.

I think the idea of parenting is to try instill the same thoughts and beliefs you have into your child.  Some of this process is through teaching them what you believe, some of it comes from surrounding them with people you think hold the same beliefs you do such as at church or other social clubs, and some of it is just from you doing what you do.  Of course, children aren't stupid. They can see the hypocrisy if you say they can't smoke and you do, or if you say don't drink and you do.  Setting a good example goes a long way. It did for me with my parents.

Even when you set a good example - and I am not talking about me in this particular instance - things aren't easy. Life is not black and white. We all have to find our way, and in most ways it is a very personal and lonely journey. If everything were black and white, we would believe those life tenets everyone has heard.  Those myths our parents teach us like "Honesty is the best policy" and "Cheaters never prosper".  Nice little jingles they are, but not very factual.  Real life shows us that there are a lot of very powerful people in politics and business who lie and cheat.  More applicable tenets might be, "If you are going to lie, lie well" or "Cheaters prosper, but bad cheaters suffer consequences".

I have always been a bad liar, so honesty IS my best policy.  I was never very clever in ways that would make me a good cheater, so it would be true for me personally that I would never prosper as a cheater.  It may be that I never practiced enough to come to these conclusions. It could be that I could be a very powerful, rich person if I had focused more on lying and cheating. I guess it was my parents' examples that led me to the conclusion that I should be honest.

As a parent, though, I think when we teach these things to our children - assuming we do - we really want them to be honest with us, and not cheat on us.  A good example would be, let's say, that I caught my daughter smoking in the house.  I personally don't like the idea of my daughter smoking, but I understand teenagers are going to try things. I would much rather her try smoking and drinking, than sex and drugs. I would want her to understand that I don't approve of these things because she is not old enough to do either, at least according to U.S. laws.  But, I also understand that that first drink and that first puff is a rite of passage, usually at a time in our lives when we are trying to define ourselves. Getting caught, however, even if the cigarette is not in her hand, let's say, means manning up and having character enough to admit it. I would like to think my daughter could tell me that she was just trying it. My only point of confusion then would be as to why she couldn't find someplace a little more discrete. 

I guess if I could teach my daughter one thing about lying and cheating, it would be this:  Once you lie or cheat someone, trust is gone.  It is unlikely you will easily gain that trust back, so be very sure you are ready for that new relationship with the person you lied to or cheated.  With family, once you lose the trust, you still have the love; but with coworkers and friends, you have nothing left.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Submarine Hanoi

Without a doubt the issue of who owns the Spratly and Paracel Archipelagos in the South China Sea (East Sea) is complicated.  A quick look at the Spratly Islands Dispute gives a pretty good idea of how many nations are laying their claims.  Vietnam currently occupies 31 islands in the Spratlys alone.  But, if you take a look at Google Earth at some of these islands, you can see there are ongoing verbal disputes; many of which are clearly visible in the comments of the photos that have been geo-posted.

These disputes aren't new.  In 1974 the South Vietnamese lost a major engagement in the Paracel Archipelago and in 1988 the Socialist Republic of Vietnam lost three vessels and 64 sailors/marines.  These are just the significant engagements that have been recorded for us to see.  I have no doubt that saber rattling takes place on a regular basis within the shoals and islands of the archipelagos.

The Vietnamese have records that show a line of possession that would be hard to dispute, unless you were a much larger country with more money and might to say differently.  China has laid claim to everything in both island chains in their description of a Cow's Tongue. With reason out the window, Vietnam has turned to her friends in the U.S. and Russia, in part to mediate and also to purchase weapons.

A quick look at offensive weapons the Vietnamese are acquiring backs up the Vietnamese affirmation that they will not peacefully give up their claims to either island chain.  The Vietnamese have 20 Sukhoi SU-30 Flanker Cs, and according to reports in August have put in an order for 12 more.  They also own 14 SU-27s from earlier purchases.  It is easy to find that the purpose of these latest generation fighters is to defend their claims to the Spratlys and Paracels.  The Vietnamese have also bolstered there Navy with the purchase of new Gepard class frigates, Tarantul Corvettes, and they are making their own modern patrol boats designed specifically to take out landing crafts and troops.  Gone are the days of the SRV purchasing Yugo class subs from the Koreans (My sister once purchased a Yugo. It wasn't a submarine, but I have no doubt she would call it a piece of shit!)

Newly elected Deputy Prime Minister Pham Binh Minh, a young foreign affairs diplomat with a Western education, a lot of diplomatic experience and a good relationship with the U.S., has already made commitments to the people to protect Vietnamese sovereignty in the archipelagos.

I have seen references in Vietnamese language newspapers to preserving peace in the East Sea through strength.  These slogans are often followed by articles about the latest weapons soon to fill their arsenal, 6 Kilo-Class 636 submarines purchased and built in Russia.

VNEXPRESS.NET posted a great article on these submarines that I translated below:

Vietnam's Kilo Class Submarine Hanoi
Thursday, November 07, 2013
3:27 PM
Important milestones of submarine Hanoi

The Hanoi, the first Vietnamese kilo-class submarine, has undergone many tests with excellent results, and has been prepared to be turned over to the Vietnamese Navy.


Ordered during an official Vietnamese leadership visit to Russia at the end of 2009, Submarine Hanoi, the first in the order of six, underwent a long process from production to testing, and now is ready for the handover.

In this 28 August 2013 photo, Kilo-class type 636 submarine Hanoi is placed on the launching docks in preparation for the official christening at the Admiraltei Verfi Ship Factory, in St. Petersberg City, Northern Russia.

Submarine HQ-182 Hanoi began construction on 25 August 2010.  53 Vietnamese officers and sailors trained on the submarine for many months in Russia.  In the photo are the sailors of the submarine Hanoi at the christening.

The Hanoi is the first Kilo-class submarine of the six contracted vessels purchased from Russia to be launched.  This ship is well-known for it quiet and stealth in operations.  In the photo is the traditional ceremony before the launch.

The christening took place according to traditional etiquette and with Russian cultural activities in August last year.

The leadership at the Admiraltei Verfi Ship Factory presented the Vietnamese Navy leaders a model of the Kilo-class type 636 submarine Hanoi at the christening ceremony.

The Hanoi, anchored at the factory harbor during the completion of the tower.

Early in December 2012, the Hanoi went a sea for the first time, officially starting the factory's testing phase.  The photo is the Hanoi when preparing to depart the harbor.

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