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Vietnam War 'souvenir' returns home after half-a-century


Former military doctor Sam Axelrad (R)  and former Viet Cong fighter, Nguyen Quang Hung, greet each other during a unique reunion that took place this morning in the Central Highlands town of An Khe. Almost 50 years go, Axelrad had saved the life of his enemy by amputating a gangrene infected arm.  PHOTO: KHA HOA

When former American military doctor Sam Axelrad and north Vietnamese soldier Nguyen Quang Hung hugged each other and held hands on Monday, an event that began almost 50 years ago with the amputation of a rotten arm came full circle.

The unique reunion between two war veterans belonging to opposite sides fighting the Vietnam War was brought about by the skeleton of the arm that was amputated in 1966.

"It's a special relief that I've completed my mission," Axelrad said, having arrived in An Khe Town in the Central Highlands province of Gia Lai after a long journey across the Pacific Ocean.

It was in this town that the US doctor had saved the life of an enemy soldier by amputating his rotten arm, and then kept its skeleton in his house in Texas for decades.

The US doctor, now 75, today managed to fulfill a long-lost friend's wish that he'd be buried whole when he passed away.

"It's a very special event. I didn't even dream that something like this would take place," he said, smiling as three generations of the American and Vietnamese families gathered at Hung's home.

One-armed Hung, now 73, was in awe of what he described as a "magic event".

"I am so grateful for all that he has done for me, saving my life and now traveling all the way to give my arm back," said the father of seven. He said it was proof that human kindness crosses all barriers, even those created by war.

Hung survived a gunshot to the right arm during an ambush by American troops in Binh Dinh Province in 1966 before "floating along a river and eating rice left over in abandoned rice fields and wild leaves" for days until the American helicopter found and took him to Camp Radcliff near An Khe.

Axelrad, then the 28-year-old commander of a medical unit attached to the camp, decided to take Hung to surgery without a second thought when a helicopter brought him in "in critical condition".

"The words "˜enemy soldier' was never in my mind," he recalled. "My rule was to take care of everyone brought in by the helicopters whoever they were," he said


The doctor amputated Hung's arm and kept him there until he recovered, before finding him a place to work as an assistant at a local clinic.

When Axelrad packed up to leave Vietnam in 1967, he saw the arm's skeleton, which he could have thrown away, but decided to take it back to the US.

He kept the arm bones together with more than 100 war "souvenirs" and photos, including those of the former Viet Cong, at home in a military trunk, which was only opened in 2010. 

The urologist, like many other American veterans, suffered from post-traumatic stress and avoided talking about his war memories for a long time.

But when he opened the trunk and saw the arm and the photos, "it blew him away and memories came back as yesterday". It was then that he decided to return to Vietnam.

"I knew it was time to return and bring back the arm," he said. "I've never felt that I own his skeleton. And it's not something I want to pass on to my grandchildren."

Sam Axelrad took his family back to Vietnam for the first time last year and his quest to return the bone to its owner was reported by Thanh Nien.  The very day the article was published, Hung's brother-in-law read it and contacted the newspaper's editors. 

"And the rest is history," said Axelrad, as the families had lunch together. 

According to Ron Ward, of the US Joint Prisoners of War, Missing in Action Accounting Command (JPAC), which handles the search for American MIAs, the return of the arm bone to a living Vietnamese veteran was a "one of a kind event", AFP reported Monday.

"It is completely unique in the history of Vietnamese wartime remains exchanges," Ward was quoted by the newswire as saying.

The former American military doctor was happy to see with own eyes how Hung has "lived a happy life" and managed to send five of his seven children to universities.  

"Your father and grandfather is a hero to me," he told Hung's family. "He almost passed away when he was very young but he fought and made a successful life."

Hung gifted Sam, his two sons and two grandchildren portrait plates of Ho Chi Minh as the  American family promised to come back again one day.

The doctor's son, Chris Axelrad, a Houston acupuncturist who has known about the skeleton in his home since a teenager, said the happy ending of the "arm story" is a "miracle that I want my daughter to see."

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