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.

          A year after leaving Vietnam, Son arrived in St. Paul to stay with an aunt who sponsored his entry into the States. He moved into the St. Anthony highrise and signed up for courses at the Brown Institute, figuring that his military training might serve him in the electronics field. But after a few months working, Son says, the agonizing pain in his legs and spine made it hard to stand up on the job. In 1992, at age 45, he applied for a disability hearing with the Social Security Administration. The report from that meeting, supplied by his attorney in the Lost Commando lawsuit, describes Son's mental and physical condition at the time. It reads, "The diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder was assigned four years ago when the claimant was experiencing disruptive sleep with nightmares, had intrusive recollections, had startle response, and felt estranged from family. He also had depressive symptoms including poor appetite with weight loss and easy fatigue.... During his 14 years of prison experience in North Vietnam he was a victim of forced labor, prolonged nutritional deprivation and exposure, head trauma from beatings, repeated attempts at forced false confessions and other self-recrimination, as well as brainwashing techniques.... During the past three and a half years, the claimant has continued to show active signs of post-traumatic stress disorder which wax and wane, often with changes in season or in response to anniversaries of events while imprisoned." During these acute episodes, it goes on, Son suffered episodes of abdominal pain, vomiting, panic attacks, trembling, psychomotor retardation, and thoughts of suicide--symptoms that still afflict him. The hearing committee granted Son disabled status and Social Security payments five months later.

          "With Son, what you see is typical of what exists across the board with these commandos," attorney John Mattes said from his office in Miami last week. "Aside from the fact that many of them, when put into shackles, were literally crucified, they've found it almost impossible to live in the aftermath. And by that, I mean not only the physical distress, but living with the knowledge that their sacrifice for the American government has gone unrecognized. But these men aren't going away. This story is real. And someone, in an official capacity, must come forward to account for all these lives that have been disposed of like garbage and ruined."

          In 1992, Mattes accepted an invitation to serve as investigative counsel to the Senate Select Committee on POW/MIA Affairs. The panel's task was to study the possibility that American POWs were still alive in Vietnam--a claim, politically popular at the time, for which Mattes and his colleagues found not a shred of evidence. They did learn, however, of the existence of dozens of boxes labeled TOP SECRET TIGER--"a trailer truck full"--in storage at the National Archives. In the course of the most sweeping declassification effort in recent history, Mattes, on June 6, 1996, discovered over 500,000 documents that directly contradicted denials by opposing counsel, in U.S. federal claims court, that no secret army, no Special Forces, no captured commandos, were ever on American government's payroll during the Vietnam War.

          "This was after months of litigation, remember, during which the government tried to dismiss the case on the grounds that that my clients had missed the statute of limitations deadline," Mattes says, offering a kind absurd chuckle that he admits, in the next breath, is in keeping with the Orwellian nature of the defense argument. "Well, these men happened to be rotting away in prison during that time. With that in mind, fast forward to the Archives: Here I was, in the early afternoon of June 6, staring at the payroll records for these men who were randomly written off as dead. What did they say? Killed in Action. I'd just come from a packed courtroom full of colonels and intelligence types who were very interested in this case because, as it turns out, they'd signed off on these documents! In them were death certificates for commandos I'd been with the week before. The next day, I walked into court and said, 'Judge, the men in this room murdered my clients on paper. They lied to the court, they lied to the American people for 30 years, and as a result their own soldiers lost the better part of their lives.

          "'Judge, here's the proof,' I said. 'Here's the records: the contracts, the death gratuity receipts. My clients were on duty when they were killed off on paper. Judge, the fraud on this court comes from the highest levels of the Department of Justice. The only question now is what this court is going to do about the criminal conduct of the United States government.'" Immediately, Mattes goes on, "The judge ordered everyone into his chambers. I'd never seen the men who came into that room before in my life. They were people from the military and intelligence communities, the men who run our country."

          On June 9, the story broke in the Sunday editions of the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times. On June 12, Mattes presented his case to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and briefed Massachusetts Senator John Kerry, a decorated Vietnam veteran, in private. The following day, Kerry alerted the National Security Council about the claims, and by the end of the week his staff had drafted a bill to force the payment of back wages to the commandos and their survivors. That Saturday, the Clinton administration agreed to support the bill. Four days later, just after noon, the bill was introduced on the Senate floor and passed on a unanimous vote. On October 4, President Clinton awarded $20 million in back pay to the Lost Army Commandos as part of a routine bill funding the U.S. Department of Defense.

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