HO CHI MINH CITY, VIETNAM — VIETNAM veteran Michael Bocketti really cannot say why he is back.
But, seated in his wheelchair on the veranda of a Ho Chi Minh City hotel, he says one reason may be a chance meeting with a Vietnamese offering clues to Americans missing in Indochina.
To the former Army medic, it all fits.
As a medic, his job "was to get the guy who was shot up and wounded and get him home." As a counselor of Vietnam veterans in upstate New York, m still trying to bring people home, but in a different way."
And now, convinced that Americans are alive and being held against their will in Indochina, the instincts he developed 20 years ago are helping him on a familiar mission. "Here is Bocketti the medic, trying to bring one more person home," he says.
More than two decades after leaving Vietnam, Michael Bocketti still searches for a way home.
Later this year, the United States is expected to end its economic embargo in a move to put the Vietnam War behind it. But Bocketti and other vocal veterans say it is not yet time, and demand a full accounting of the 2,273 Americans missing in action (MIA).
Bocketti says he doubts the move will bring the healing touch. He urges American officials to do more and derides those who consider the MIA hunt increasingly improbable and susceptible to hoaxes.
Indeed, many of his colleagues wondered at his trip, considering a return to Vietnam out of the question until some Americans, who they believe are still alive and captive in Southeast Asia, resurface. For them, normalizing relations will only revive the pain of a futile war and memories of the ingratitude and bitterness of a vanquished America.
"Lifting the embargo will reopen old wounds. There will be rancor because the injustice of it all will come back, the uselessness of it," says the counselor. "We never got a chance to see the Vietnamese as people. And now they're supposed to be our friends?"
And yet in Vietnam, where a growing number of veterans return to face a troubled past, Bocketti admits to some second thoughts. After all, hasn't his presence elicited a new lead? Couldn't visiting servicemen comb the country and score success where official US investigators had failed?
"One part of me says that if we have people living and working here, we may be able to get another POW out," he says.
What Bocketti envisions is bringing servicemen back to see their former bases and battlefields. He had hoped to spend his six-day trip revisiting the places in central Vietnam where he spent his war for more than a year: the city of Da Nang, the old military hospital at Quinhon, a nearby leprosarium run by Catholic nuns.
Bocketti had even hoped to see old battle sites where, he recalls, Agent Orange defoliant "dripped from the trees." Only later did he make the connection (still under debate) between the chemical and his subsequent illness, which has confined him to a wheelchair.
Bocketti joined the lawsuit against the US government; in May 1990, the Veterans Affairs Department announced that it would soon pay $8 million a year to the 1,110 plaintiffs, including Bocketti. He has yet to receive any compensation.
During their visit, Bocketti and his wife Donna got stuck in Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon), which has become a city of many beggars, bars, and business at the cutting edge of Vietnam's free-market reforms.
Unable to engineer travel permits for the central provinces, the couple ran up against time constraints, bureaucratic mistakes that vex all foreign visitors, and the contradictory reality of a new Vietnam where communist controls can coexist with free-wheeling capitalism.
And yet, amid the mundane frustrations, there were moments of pain and solace: a terrifying flash-back as curious Vietnamese surrounded Bocketti's wheelchair in a park, jitters from exploding firecrackers on New Year's Eve, a quiet moment spent sprinkling dirt hand-carried from an American war memorial at a cemetery for Vietnamese war dead, sharing tears with a South Vietnamese Army veteran, striking a friendship with a young writer and guide.
Michael Bocketti says he knows he'll be back, if only to help bring MIAs - and America - home from Vietnam.
"There has to be one person who survived out of more than 2,200 MIAs," he says. "I would like to see someone, even if it's just one person, come home."