In this photo taken Monday, May 16, 2011, Thanh Dac Nguyen poses in one of the DNA identity laboratories at the University of North Texas Health Science Center Pathology and Human Identification Department in Fort Worth, Texas. Nguyen collected grave site remains that were tested at the science center for DNA analysis. Nguyen, a former South Vietnamese soldier, was imprisoned at a re-education camp by the northern communists who took control of the country after the Vietnam War. More than three decades later, Nguyen, now a 70-year-old retiree who fled to the U.S., has returned to his homeland to search the jungles for his lost buddies' graves“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.
In this photo taken Friday, July 29, 2011, Daniel Luong holds the tombstone of his father, former South Vietnamese Army Capt. Luong Van Hoa, at his home in Los Angeles. Nearly a year to the day after collecting the tombstone and human remains from a grave at the former site of the Lang Da re-education camp in Vietnam in July 2010, Luong got the news that the remains were a positive DNA match for his father. He last saw his father in 1976 when he was just 12 years old.
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.
In this photo taken Monday, May 16, 2011, Wesley Coddou, left, and Thanh Dac Nguyen, center, look over photos of remains with Jennifer Urbina, right, an evidence custodian at the University of North Texas Health Science Center in Fort Worth, Texas. The remains that came from grave sites in Vietnam were shipped to the Science Center for DNA analysis. Nguyen, a former South Vietnamese soldier, was imprisoned at a re-education camp by the northern communists who took control of the country after the Vietnam War. More than three decades later, Nguyen, now a 70-year-old retiree who fled to the U.S., has returned to his homeland to search the jungles for his lost buddies' graves
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. Via Statesman: Vietnamese re-education camp prisoner kept promise