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.

          "I was moved with the first nine prisoners in April to Quang Ninh and then to Quyet Tien," Son remembers, and the memory of that time, as he begins to tell it, lines his usually expressionless face with fatigue. "Before, we sawed logs every day for hours and hours. But here, it was the dark room. It was the nightmare starting here. My feet were shackled for three and a half years. Never for one day did I think I would come out. I thought nothing except I would die in this camp. There is no mattress, just plain concrete. To lay down was very cold on my back. Every night, I don't lay down. I can't. By the end, maybe 100 more came to this camp. Some were local criminals the Communists arrested and some commandos. Then in April 1975, I heard that they took over Saigon but I did not believe it. Only on Labor Day, May 1, they used the public address system to say it was true. Many of the prisoners cried. Maybe they had kept us alive so as to have an exchange of prisoners again. That was the only hope for us to be free. Now I thought it's over. It is over for me."

          Between 1975, when Saigon surrendered and Vietnam was unified, and 1982, when he was finally released, Son survived six concentration camps. Tuyen Quang. Ha Dong. Thanh Phong. Others with names he never knew. Through most of that time, he was unable to stand--like the other Special Forces agents still in captivity, too weak from malnutrition and too crippled by shackling. At one camp, he was assigned in the afternoon to a cell in which the previous prisoner had died that morning and whose blanket, still wet, was left on the floor. At another, three POWs died of starvation in the cells beside him. When hostilities between Vietnam and China flared up along the border in the late 1970s, Son remembers a transport truck coming to clear the whole camp out overnight. "The truck was covered, so no one looking could see inside. We were very weak and some had to be carried. We were shackled to the truck, all day, so people just threw up in there and urinated in there. The road was full of bumps--very hard on me because my bones stuck out so far."

          In August 1982, a guard came to Son's cell with a list of inmates scheduled for release. His name was on it. Fourteen years after the day he first set foot in Hoa Lo prison, he made his way across the courtyard of Thanh Phong, holding onto the cinderblock walls for support, and passed through the gate. Son's aunt, who lived in Hanoi, was waiting for him there. He weighed less than 100 pounds. His body had shrunk several inches to a height of just over five feet. His muscles were withered and atrophied from repeated bouts of malaria, infections, and dysentery. Just months before, Son had been given clearance to contact his family by mail, though all correspondence was censored by prison officials. In the first of several letters to his brothers and sisters in Saigon, he wrote: "I am here in this camp. I am healthy and very good. The government treats me very well."

          It is shameful to surrender. This Nguyen Cao Son still believes, as every soldier believes. Even when his team and the dozens of teams dropped over the border before him had no choice but to surrender, it is shameful, now, to live with the idea that had they fought back, had they been willing to die there on the spot, had they refused to be doubled and turned, perhaps the war would have ended as predicted: the Communists defeated, his country still on the map, the Americans going into a future without their own shameful legacy of a lost war. That war has been talked about, fictionalized, filmed, studied, and memorialized in black granite for so many years that to have its specter raised again now, in this lawsuit and in the black holes of Son's own mind, is like picking at a very old scar--a scar the survivors all still suffer, though some with the knowledge that theirs were inflicted not only by their enemies but by their friends.

          Son survived his ordeal this way: by not thinking. And when he couldn't not think, by sleeping--one of the only available ways in the camps to stay human. When he came back into the world, barely human, most of what he remembered about it had changed. The Americans he once worked for were gone. His father was dead. His grandmother, who on the advice of a psychic had believed for years that Son was still alive, was dead. His photograph, taken down from the altar and returned to his sister's house, showed the face of a man so young, so brilliant, as to be someone else, an eternity ago. During that time, he says, he couldn't sleep well. He couldn't stop thinking.

          In 1987, Son paid three ounces of gold to a stranger--the price of a boat ride to Malaysia--in the hope of, as he tells it now, "buying my escape to a place where I could tell my story, end my life as a ghost, and become free." He spent four months at a refugee camp in Malaysia, under the auspices of the United Nations. From there, he was transferred for a six-month stay in the Philippines, into another holding pattern during which he was granted an interview with the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service. Unlike dozens of other former commandos, the agents there believed his story, at least enough to stamp his file and permit him passage to the United States. Ten of his Special Forces comrades died while waiting for their requests to be approved. Nearly 30 other commandos or their families are still stranded in Vietnam, a shame no U.S. government official has yet been willing or able to solve.

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