Families of MIAs once again dare to hope, following remarks made by Yeltsin

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Their hopes have been raised so many times before.

The families of servicemen missing in action during the Vietnam War have heard rumors many times over the years that U.S. prisoners of war were still alive. None has ever proved true.

So it is little wonder that many Maryland families of MIAs are skeptical of Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin's revelation that American POWs from Vietnam were interned in the Soviet Union, and that some might still be alive.

"I just can't believe that they are there," said Edna Hicks of Silver Spring, whose son, Lt. Col. Terrin D. Hicks, was shot down in 1968 over Laos as he was returning to his base in Thailand.

"It would be a miracle," she said. "But somehow I can't believe it. I think our government would have known something about it by now, as much as we have investigated. It seems to me we would have known something about it by now."

Mrs. Hicks said the families were often treated "like yo-yos, getting their hopes up and then letting them die down again. And I think this is just another way of getting their hopes up."

Judging from official comment last week, Mrs. Hicks' skepticism is well-founded.

Since Mr. Yeltsin's remarks, U.S. and Russian officials alike have issued numerous denials. A nine-member delegation from the U.S.-Russian joint commission on POWs and MIAs traveled Thursday to a labor camp in Pechora in northern Russia where it was believed an American prisoner from the Korean War was possibly being held.

The delegation found nothing but vowed to continue investigating.

"Every other month some group is making some sort of claim, and nothing ever seems to come of it," said Christopher Vogt of Columbia, whose father Cmdr. Leonard F. Vogt, was reported missing after his plane reportedly exploded after a night bombing run in September 1965.

"It's not very nice to raise everyone's hopes and leave them dangling time after time," he said.

Still, that the source of the most recent information was Mr. Yeltsin gave the latest disclosure more authority.

"This is the first time we've heard it from a high-ranking Soviet official. So it might be plausible, but we still haven't heard anything concrete, even from him," Mr. Vogt said.

"I just can't believe he doesn't have something to base his statement on, but what it is, I just can't imagine," said Sarah Frances Shay, the Maryland coordinator of the National League of Families of American Prisoners and Missing in Southeast Asia.

"It isn't beyond the realm of possibility, but seeing is believing, and we'll just have to wait and see," said Mrs. Shay of Linthicum. Her son, Maj. Donald E. Shay Jr., an Air Force pilot, has been missing since October 1970.

Michael Brett of Laurel said that over the years, he has heard rumors that his brother, Lt. Robert Arthur Brett Jr., had been captured by the North Vietnamese and sent to the Soviet Union. Lieutenant Brett was weapons officer and navigator on an F-111 fighter that went down over North Vietnam in September 1972.

"There was a lot of speculation that the Russians would be very interested in some of that technology and the knowledge of the pilots," Mr. Brett said. "Radio Hanoi had claimed in a broadcast at the time that they had shot down the plane and captured the crew. We haven't heard of anything since."

But about a year ago, Mr. Brett's father, a retired Air Force officer, learned through intelligence contacts that his son had been captured and transported to Russia. Nothing ever came of it.

"Sometimes it's almost worse to hope at this point, to wonder what kind of life he's had for 20 years," he said.

Some national POW-MIA organizations have said that Mr. Yeltsin's comments confirmed suspicions they have had for years.

"We were just elated," said Dolores Apodaca Alfond of the National Alliance of Families, a Seattle-based organization that has long believed American prisoners from World War II and the Korean War had been held in the Soviet Union.

"He's the first politician inside or outside this country that's come in here and told the truth, right out front to the American people, of what we knew six years ago from evidence we got out of the [National] Archives -- that prisoners of war from World War II, Korea and Vietnam were transported to the Soviet Union," said Allen Ziegler, a spokes man for Homecoming 2, a group that has held a vigil for seven years near the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, calling for the return of American POWs.

Ms. Alfond's brother, Victor Apodaca, has been listed as missing since he went down over North Vietnam during an armed reconnaissance mission in June 1967. She said she received in 1990 a signed affidavit from a retired National Security Administration analyst stating that her brother had been a POW in Vietnam and was later sent to the Soviet Union.

Her own efforts to find out more about her brother's fate have been frustrated, she said, by the government's refusal to release classified documents she has requested.

"We have to put more pressure on our own government, because it's out that the Russians are stepping forward and saying they kept some men behind in these wars, and our own government maintains that there is no evidence ," she said.

Others believe the government has done all it can.

"They are doing their best to solve this problem, and if there had been any lead whatsoever, if there had been anyone taken to Russia, there would have been a follow-up on that," said Mrs. Hicks.

The consensus is that the U.S. government should aggressively investigate the latest lead.

"I hope they follow up on it and try to track it down as thoroughly as possible," said Mr. Vogt. Financial aid to the Russians should be tied to their cooperation in resolving this question, he said.

Mr. Vogt was just 9 years old when his father's plane reportedly exploded. Searches turned up no survivors and no trace of anyone killed was ever found.

"I am probably less hopeful than some of the other families are," Mr. Vogt said. "But I understand their feelings. I mean, we all wonder, and in the absence of anything definite. There's always that 'what if?' "

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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