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Jewish World Review May 3, 2000 /28 Nissan, 5760

Roger Simon

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'Those bones could be human' -- HANOI -- John McCain stands under a baking sun in the breath-sucking heat of the place he used to bomb, the place they once called North Vietnam.

In front of him are six black boxes made of wood. Each is about three feet long, a foot high and a foot wide. Each is lined with red silk.

A Vietnamese official slowly, painstakingly unscrews each lid so McCain can look inside. Inside the boxes are plastic bags.

The bags contain bones. "And a tooth," McCain will say later. "One bag had a tooth in it."

It would be nice to think that the six boxes contain the remains of six U.S. veterans, but that is not known. That may or may not be established when the bones get to Hawaii for identification.

The bones may not, in point of fact, be human.

"Sometimes they turn out to be animal bones," says Army Lt. Col. Franklin F. Childress. "And sometimes, well, when a jet explodes and the engine comes crashing through the cockpit, well ..." Childress stick out a hand.

"Sometimes the pieces we find are about the size of thumbnail."

Good morning, Vietnam!

McCain walks back to where about 50 American civilians are standing in orderly rows besides an enormous gray U.S. Air Force C-17 cargo plane on the tarmac at Noibai airport outside Hanoi.

A C-17 is capable of carrying 170,900 pounds of payload. This day it will carry only the six black boxes, placed carefully, lovingly inside six aluminum coffins by an honor guard that covers each coffin in an American flag.

As each coffin is carried up the belly ramp of the plane, McCain places his hand over his heart.

A few yards away, a catering truck carrying airline meals of chicken, beef and fish -- your first choice may not be available -- drives up to a turquoise and gold Vietnam Airlines plane, whose engines continue to roar throughout the American ceremony.

A few of the Vietnamese loading luggage onto the plane look wordlessly over at the Americans. Most don't bother doing that.

"They have a different view of human life," McCain says later. "I don't mean to be derogatory. But they never expected to get all their bodies back."

For the first time in its history, America does and is spending nearly $100 million per year to recover remains and check out rumors of living POWS in Vietnam.

Americans are hugely conflicted over Vietnam, but America is not letting go.

Later, at a briefing at the Joint Task Force for Full Accounting, which is what the effort is called, McCain gets an update, including a slide show demonstrating how difficult it is to recover even scraps of bodies after some 30 years.

Some bodies are on mountaintops or in deep jungle growth or at the bottom of the ocean.

Each such recovery -- called an "excavation" -- costs about $1 million, and much of it is spent in a country where the per capita income is $370 per year.

"It is very rewarding for them (i.e., the Vietnamese) financially," McCain said. "It is lucrative for them."

Bringing back bones, however, is not the biggest goal of the effort.

"Bringing back a live American is our top priority," Childress said. "There is no credible evidence of an American still held alive in Southeast Asia, but we don't rule it out."

McCain then raised the big question: How long do you keep spending this kind of money? After all, $100 million is real money and it could be spent on living people either in the United States or Vietnam.

"The question that arises is when do we terminate this." McCain said. "The answer lies with the families. The answer is: When they are satisfied."

Which may mean: never.

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© 2000, Creators Syndicate