VIENTIANE, Laos — John Kerry was in Laos as secretary of state, to meet the prime minister, and Bill Gadoury was here as a Defense Department civilian employee nearing retirement, but on Monday, they were just two Vietnam War vets sitting around hashing over unfinished business.
Gadoury went to Kerry's hotel to brief him on successful efforts to identify and return the remains of 271 airmen downed over Laos in the 1960s and early 1970s, when the United States was trying to stop traffic along the Ho Chi Minh trail.
They already shared a history. The two men last crossed paths 24 years ago, when Kerry was co-chairing a Senate committee investigating the POW/MIA issue. They met when Kerry went to Laos on a fact-finding mission, and Gadoury accompanied him to triple-canopy-jungle sites where planes that had smashed into the earth were being excavated in the hunt for traces of human remains. Kerry ended up calling Gadoury to testify.
An additional 302 airmen are unaccounted for, and Gadoury is still at it a quarter-century later.
"I cannot believe the work you've done for our country, and keeping the faith," Kerry said Monday as he and Gadoury settled into identical taupe leather couches in a large, ornate conference room overlooking a bend in the Mekong River.
"It's been an honor to be part of the team all these years," Gadoury replied, demurring when Kerry called him amazing.
"I always tell people, I'm as proud of this as anything I've been engaged in," Kerry told him of the search for those who died in a war that ended four decades ago. "We've put together the largest, most comprehensive, most enduring examination of what happened to people in war, in the history of warfare. No country has ever done what we did. I don't know of any other nation in the world that goes to the lengths we go in active duty, military people digging at active sites, pulling up the remains of a C-130, or helicopter, or something, in order to complete the mission."
In three years as secretary of state, Kerry has traveled almost 1 million miles and visited 77 countries, some for only a few hours. Rarely does his work get as intensely personal as it did during his conversation with Gadoury.
"We landed, remember, the valley, the valley," Kerry said.
"It was a rice paddy," Gadoury interjected.
"A rice paddy," Kerry repeated, his memory jogged. "It was both beautiful and haunting. It was weird. You could sort of feel a firefight around the corner."
Gadoury, who was based in Thailand for the Air Force during the Vietnam War, went back in time with Kerry, saying: "It gives you the sense of the terrain that we had to deal with back during the war, and what we were up against. And it's the same terrain that we're still up against now as we're going back to try to locate and recover people."
They sat silently for a few seconds, neither saying a word before they continued.
At one point, after a series of anecdotes involving Kerry climbing down deep craters where planes were being excavated and the two of them taking a teeth-chattering ride on a Russian helicopter, Kerry brought the conversation back to modern day.
"Well, listen, man," he said to Gadoury. "Memory Lane is one thing. Where do you think we are? What do we need to do?"
Gadoury explained how all the easy sites had been reached, while far more treacherous locations were still unsearched. Their work was hampered by weather and terrain, he said.
He told Kerry of solid leads on the location of about half the 302 remaining cases, including 75 that are slated for excavation.
"And then we hope, we expect we'll find more," he said. "Right now, approximately half of that, we may be able to work through in the next 10 to 15 years. Obviously we'll keep trying and we'll try to find as many can before we run out of leads."
Kerry mentioned an upcoming summit at the Sunnylands resort in Palm Springs, California, where President Barack Obama will host the 10 members of the Association of South East Asia Nations. Laos, which holds the chair this year, will attend.
"If you want to, I mean, obviously, if you have a plan or a concept, this is the time, when the folks come to Sunnylands," he said. "If you've got requests, I'll put 'em to them."
Daniel Clune, the U.S. ambassador to Laos, who had been listening quietly, said that the Communist government, while cooperative, imposes limits on the size of search teams. There are 58 people in Laos looking for American MIAs. The work could proceed faster with larger teams, he said. Like Kerry, he is an ardent admirer of Gadoury.
"Nobody's indispensable, Mr. Secretary, but Bill's close to it," he said.
"I know that," Kerry replied, "I knew that back then. Which is why he testified before the committee so effectively. He was our link to possibilities and to realities."
Gadoury, deflecting the compliments, cautioned that the remains of some Americans killed in Laos may never be found.
"There are no witnesses or whatever," he said. "But we'll do our best, like we've been trying so hard to do over the years."
Gadoury said that after trying for 32 years, he may retire soon. He repeated the word, "may."
"Be nice to come to a conclusion at some point," he added.
"It'll decide for itself, when it's ready," Kerry said before an aide called him out to answer a phone call from the Laotian prime minister.