After Long Struggle, South Vietnamese to Get What's Due

TIMES STAFF WRITER

They were dropped behind enemy lines by the CIA in an espionage operation that went awry in spectacular fashion.

Lying in wait for these South Vietnamese commandos--who were recruited, and paid, by the U.S. in the early 1960s--were North Vietnamese units with inside information on their plans.

Those commandos who weren't killed were hauled off to military prisons, where they were brutally interrogated, starved to death or kept in shackles for years.

The more than 200 surviving "lost commandos" have engaged in recent years in another struggle--for recognition and recompense by the U.S. government. And their persistence has begun to pay off.

Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-Garden Grove), whose district is home to some of the former commandos, helped steer revised legislation through Congress two years ago to compel compensation by the Pentagon. A special commission established to handle the payments has just begun to parcel out funds.

But the process wasn't easy.

After getting clearance for the first refugees of this ill-fated spy and sabotage mission to enter the United States five years ago, attorney John C. Mattes, a former Senate staff member, began filing lawsuits on their behalf.

Mattes sought back pay for their mission and years of captivity. But the Pentagon denied any responsibility for them. Army historians issued a report saying the commandos had been recruited by the South Vietnamese government and served under a contract with that nation. Thus, they said, the U.S. had no obligations to them.

Supporting the Pentagon, Justice Department lawyers told the U.S. Court of Claims in April 1995 that the lawsuit for $11 million in back pay was without merit. Government lawyers said there was no record of any U.S. contract with the commandos and, therefore, no duty to provide them with back pay.

But Mattes, a former aide to Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), long had heard that 53 boxes of CIA and military records on these men were tucked away in the National Archives.

He pushed John Erickson, a Justice Department lawyer, to dig them out. Erickson claimed such records were irrelevant. The Supreme Court previously had ruled that secret contracts for covert operations were unenforceable, Erickson told the court.

"Every indication is that those documents do not contain a single thing that would assist the plaintiffs to plead their case," he argued.

But Mattes filed a lawsuit under the Freedom of Information Act to gain access to the documents and, in mid-1996, found what he had been looking for. The boxes were a treasure trove, and he showed them to sympathetic lawmakers.

The declassified documents, made public by the Senate Intelligence Committee, proved Erickson and his Justice Department colleagues wrong. They showed that until 1966 the U.S. government had accepted responsibility for the commandos and had paid wives and families of the captured men until Army officials decided the payments were too burdensome.

Then, according to the records, the Army simply told the commandos' families that the men were dead.

"We reduced the number on the payroll gradually by declaring so many of them dead each month until we had written them all off," one 1969 document said.

A chagrined Congress in 1996 OKd $20 million for the commandos, enough to pay each man or his survivors a minimum of $40,000--with more for those who spent 20 years as prisoners.

But the Pentagon began dragging its feet on developing a system to process the payments. Then the Justice Department sought to retry the matter. And Pentagon analysts asserted that the legislation was technically flawed.

Alerted to the problem, Sanchez helped revise the legislation to make it clear that the Defense Department had an ironclad mandate to assist these men.

Now that the former commandos are starting to get their money, Mattes says he may approach Congress to seek access for the men to veterans hospitals--a request so far denied by a Defense Department board.

"I would never have believed the kind of response these fighting men received," Mattes says. "I always thought we could do better as a country."

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