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MIAs:the least that is owed them

The anguish of the families of Americans missing in Southeast Asia should continue to tug at the hearts -- and conscience -- of all persons. The MIAs, as the missing Americans have been designated, are after all more than just the military personnel they were when sent to fight in the jungles of Vietnam back in the 1960s and early 1970s. They are also the sons and brothers, husbands and fathers, of the American people.

The fates of at least 2,500 Americans in Southeast Asia are not fully known. All but ten are presumed to be dead, but the reports that more might still be alive are under continual investigation. Private citizen groups in the US, however, mainly families related to the missing Americans, are challenging the criteria used by the government to close the cases on these persons.

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The problem involved in determining exactly what has happened to these missing Americans is perhaps best underscored by the deplorable conduct of the government of Vietnam in returning the bodies of three Americans last month. Hanoi has not offered one word of explanation, for example, about one of the returned Americans, Navy Comdr. Ronald W. Dodge. Yet a picture of Commander Dodge being marched down a street by North Vietnamese soldiers appeared on the cover of a French magazine. What happened to Commander Dodge during the 14- year period from 1967, when his plane was shot down over North Vietnam, until the return of his body last month?

Are Americans still being held captive in Vietnam? And what about Laos? Washington has since said that there is no longer any reason to believe that Americans are being held prisoner in that country. Yet reports persist to the contrary, some from firsthand Laotian observers. Reports also persist about US POWs in Vietnam. The administration should give a full detailing of its findings.

Over the years Mr. Reagan has spoken out on numerous occasions about his deep desire to do all that he can to ensure that all missing Americans in Southeast Asia are accounted for and that any citizens held captive are returned home. The US must take all appropriate diplomatic steps to make certain that this is the case. At the same time it should be willing to undertake quiet discussions with dissident groups to obtain information on MIAs, such as in Laos. But the administration must be careful to avoid making payments to such groups that could in effect be used to underwrite internal rebellion.

The government must also put more international pressure on Vietnam to return the bodies of Americans still held in that nation. To date, fewer than 80 bodies have been returned. The US must be firm in continuing its policy of not discussing the resumption of diplomatic relations with Vietnam until the MIA issue is fully resolved.

The Vietnam war will not really be over for America until all of its servicemen are accounted for. That much, at least, is owed them.

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