The Vietnam War—and the Search for Its M.I.A.s—Keeps Robert Schwab Looking Back in Anger
They are the gruesome remnants of our ugliest war: First, in July a wicker basket containing two pounds of charred bones was brought out of the jungles of Laos by Laotian anti-Communist guerrillas. Then two weeks ago three skulls and parts of a fourth followed. The guerrillas believe that those human shards are the remains of as many as eight of the 2,528 Americans still missing from the Indochina war—560 of whom disappeared in Laos. Now a U.S. government laboratory in Hawaii has begun the bitter task of trying to identify them.
That the remains surfaced at all, six years after the United States withdrawal from Vietnam, was remarkable. Their recovery is due in large part to the efforts of Robert Schwab III, the American to whom friendly anti-Communist guerrillas handed over the package of bones in July. A 39-year-old soldier of misfortune who went to Vietnam 17 years ago as an infantryman, Schwab stayed in Southeast Asia because "I couldn't get away from it. That's where the history of the world was at that time, and I had been part of it." In the last three years Schwab has launched five missions into Laos with guerrillas, partly in search of MIAs, partly to attract U.S. attention to the rebels and their struggle against the Communist regime.
Unearthing the remains was a sour victory for Schwab. "I found out that I'm not doing this for any great affection for the families or the men who may be there, although I do feel badly for them, but more and more it is out of pure bitterness at my own government having abandoned them so callously," Schwab says. "I'm very bitter that the government hasn't used the best means available for accounting for the missing Americans—that is, the Laotian resistance." Instead, he says, the United States works only with the Laotian Communist government for "the most flimsy of political reasons"—the fear that contact with Schwab's guerrillas would give the impression that America is again meddling in Southeast Asia.
As Schwab sees it, the Communist government in Vientiane has no interest in aiding the search; he claims that in six years it has turned up the remains of only one missing GI. Schwab believes that his allies in the resistance are the only people willing and able to locate crash sites. If the U.S. government sent in paid Laotian mercenaries, Schwab maintains, they "could be ambushed and killed if they get near the sites. It will be dead men going after dead men." Yet he concedes that the U.S. would have to provide financial support to the guerrillas to insure their aid in looking for MIAs.
"You can't expect the people in the resistance to abandon their own struggle in order to risk their lives looking for bones for a country that let them down—and that's what we did," Schwab says.
Schwab's interest in Indochina is intensely personal. After he graduated from Williams College in 1963, he enlisted in the Army and volunteered for Vietnam, where he served in the Mekong Delta and in the highlands, seeing "some combat." Schwab kept returning to Indochina after his 1965 discharge, first as a free-lance correspondent, later as a civilian aide to U.S. military advisers. By 1978 he had migrated to Bangkok, and curiosity led him to join the Laotian rebels on a foray. "The first time I went in," he recalls, "I was only thinking of seeing how the Lao resistance operated and if there was some way I could get them some publicity. When I came out I was contacted by some people interested in MIAs. I was very embarrassed that I hadn't given it a thought." Hearing about his activities, the National League of POW/MIA Families contacted Schwab and offered money to help fund his searches. Director Ann Griffiths says the league gave Schwab about $15,000, but then cut off the funds a year ago. "We're grateful for his efforts," she says, "but he wasn't producing and we couldn't afford to extend ourselves on a bet." Schwab's efforts—and his ideas—are frowned upon by U.S. authorities. "No government likes to have private citizens interfering in its investigations," says the State Department's Barbara Harvey. "He must know that our government can't help him if he gets into trouble."
For the moment Schwab is back in Atlanta, where his divorced parents both live. Schwab can no longer raise the kind of money he needs to continue his activities in Indochina. Now, he says, he wants to find a job—to marry and settle down. Although he picked up a degree in international management on one of his stateside stints in 1967, he's not sure his skills are salable. "The kind of life I've led since I got out of graduate school is not conducive to working for a corporation," he admits. "I'd like to work for Coca-Cola. But what's Coke going to hire me to do? Blow up Pepsi plants?" Not surprisingly, he hopes the job he finds will enable him to live and work in Southeast Asia. But he adds: "This was probably my last trip into Laos...I don't want to ruin my life with bitterness."
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