LEFT FOR DEAD

Nguyen Cao Son and his fellow South Vietnamese soldiers were part of a secret U.S. spy commando force--so secret, in fact, that the American government turned its back and let him spend 14 years in North Vietnamese prison camps.

          On April 24, 1995, John Mattes, an attorney based in Miami who served on the Senate Select Committee on POW/MIA Affairs, filed a class-action lawsuit against the U.S. government in federal court on behalf of Son and 280 other commandos who were captured or executed or died behind bars while employed in the American military's clandestine war against North Vietnam. In essence, the suit demands that back wages be paid by the United States to these Special Forces soldiers (or their estates) who were on the secret payroll during their captivity. Broken down, the total claim of $20 million amounts to $2,000 for each year each commando spent in prison, with the remaining balance reserved for future claims. In September of last year, the Department of Justice told the court that, after some investigation, its staff could find no evidence at all that the U.S. government had any obligation to pay--no contracts, no records, no proof.

          "That is an outright lie, and these men who've come back from the dead are living testimony to the blood on American hands," Mattes says of his clients, referred to in the suit as the Lost Army Commandos. "There's not a single administration over the last 30 years that isn't complicit in this crime. And what is this crime? It is the absolute desertion by American military commanders of their own troops. It is the killing off of soldiers on paper--right down the list--by bureaucrats whose job it was to make sure this secret war never came to light. They were left behind to rot, surrounded by a silence that's lasted three decades. So I've been fighting this cover-up for men who officially don't exist, who went on missions that officially never happened. Listen, whatever conspiracy theories you may have about your government, forget them--this story is dark beyond the darkest imagination. And it would be unspeakable, except that it must be said for the sake of historical truth. And for some kind of late, very late, justice for these men."

          Setting straight the historical record is, by all indications, something the Defense and Justice departments, the CIA, and most retired intelligence officers who served in Southeast Asia are not eager to do. As the case unfolds and top-secret documents continue to come to light, it appears that Nguyen Cao Son's story is part of a larger narrative that puts the lie to the accepted--nearly mythic--version of American involvement in the Vietnam war.

          That version began taking shape in 1970, when Daniel Ellsberg turned over to the New York Times a stack of files, subsequently known as the Pentagon Papers, which he'd pulled together while in South Vietnam targeting drop sites for the Special Forces secret missions under a directive called Operation Plan 34-Alpha (OPLAN 34-A). What Ellsberg left out of that material was any mention of these missions, of the soldiers who were hired to carry them out, and of their role in escalating the war. As early as 1965 this covert spy program, which cost the Defense Department over $20 million that year, was judged by the very men in charge of it to be an utter failure. By the time Son's team was dropped into the north three years later, not a single commando who had gone before him had ever returned alive. And no one with any knowledge of their fate ever assumed they would.

          From the helicopter a thousand feet above the Long Dai river, the landing site looked clear to Son--no border guards in sight, an easy drop. He'd run through the routine dozens of times before at the training camp in Da Nang. Jump. Pull back. Drop. Land and roll. The other five commandos on his team, Strata 120, were right behind him, single file, supplies on their backs, one with a radio, one with a code book, waiting for the signal. Go. They jumped and floated, 10 seconds, 20, aiming on the map for the black X.

          They hit ground in heavy brush, rolled, and froze. The plan from there was to stake out the surrounding terrain and, if it checked out safe, to set up camp with a hillside vantage over the village of Long Mo along the Ho Chi Minh trail. The team's American trainer believed the Viet Cong were using the area as a way station before infiltrating south across the border. Just hours before the drop, Strata 120 again received instructions to note any traffic along the route and report back to headquarters. The whole mission, they were told, would take at most one, maybe two weeks. Just signal by radio when you're ready to come home. In and out. Quick and clean.

          But the mission turned dirty fast. Soon after landing, one team member took his gear in the early morning and stole down to the river to fish. The others waited at camp, under cover on the slope. Then, out of nowhere, a rifle fired and Son heard voices in the distance below. In that moment, he remembers, "I knew my fellow soldier was shot, and that we were discovered somehow. We ran up the hill to escape. We were followed for many days that way, trying to hide." Three days after the first attack, Strata 120's team leader was shot and killed. The four remaining commandos, with Second Lieutenant Son now in charge, abandoned their leader's body and fled further up the hill, leaving their supply packs, maps, and the damaged radio behind. What happened to him next, Son says, was like a character in a story falling asleep and beginning to dream the dream that would haunt him until he died--and years later, to haunt him after he'd returned from the dead.

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