Having served in the Air Force in Thailand during the Vietnam War, Ed “Cowboy” Lewis has lamented the struggles of his era’s veterans, especially those who became homeless. His nonprofit organization, Ride of the Brotherhood, tried to create a home for such veterans, though that may have hit a dead end.
But he seems to be nearing a breakthrough for those he considers the ultimate homeless.
In April, Lewis, who lives in Lacombe, got approval from the Vietnamese Ministry of Defense to assist with locating the remains of missing servicemen from both sides of the war.
“There are 1,200 American soldiers that are still unaccounted for in Vietnam, and over 300,000 Vietnamese soldiers that are unaccounted for,” Lewis said. “Why don’t we work as a joint effort? We help them find theirs, and they give us permission to find ours.”
The April journey was Lewis’ second trip back to Southeast Asia, having led a group of veterans to visit in 2014. Also on that trip was Donna Elliott, an Arkansas resident who has been going to Vietnam often since 1999 in hopes of finding what happened to her brother, Jerry Elliott, who was declared missing in action following a battle at Khe Sanh on Jan. 21, 1968. Her difficulties getting cooperation from Vietnamese and American officials — the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency has an office in Hanoi — have helped motivate Lewis’ efforts.
“I started realizing with the experience that she has … if we put our heads together, maybe we could create something that could help many other family members in the same position she’s in,” Lewis said. “I decided Ride of the Brotherhood is dedicated to the needs of our veterans, particularly the homeless vets. Why not expand the homeless program to cover the MIA, which is the true homeless vet?”
Lewis said Chet Walker, an Arizona-based archeologist, has agreed to provide ground-penetrating radar to help locate human remains. Lewis has researched military reports and interviewed veterans of battles whose memories often expand and even correct the official accounts of what happened.
DPAA officials told Lewis they often get little cooperation from veterans they interview.
“We’re not the government. We’re another veteran talking to a veteran,” Lewis said. “Sometimes, veterans will talk more openly to another vet. The Vietnamese government is starting to do that with Vietnamese soldiers. So, it’s a joint effort type of program.”
DPAA’s budget is limited and spread among various wars. Lewis said his group can cover the cost of locating soldiers’ remains, so more can be recovered. He said his group wants to cooperate with government agencies and experienced archeologists, because those who don’t know what they are doing can make recovery efforts more difficult.
“If there’s 1,200 sets of remains, the more help you can get finding them, the better it’s going to be for everybody in the long run,” Lewis said.
“We’ve got three soldiers that are willing to go back to Vietnam on their own expenses to show us the last known sightings of where an American soldier was. The drive is there. The interest is there … These soldiers are willing to help.”
Having gotten the thumbs-up from the Ministry of Defense and the University of Hanoi’s Geophysics Department, Lewis is waiting on an operational permit before beginning work. He hopes to go back in late June or early July to explore sites and to bring the ground-penetrating radar in September.
Ride of the Brotherhood grew out of Lewis’ involvement in long-distance motorcycle rides that raised money for various charities. Following a 2012 motorcycle accident that hospitalized him for three months, a New Orleans friend called him about bringing Vietnam veterans back to visit that country.
Lewis, who grew up in New Orleans and moved back to the area in 1995, took on that project and others aimed at helping Vietnam veterans. This has become his consuming interest.
“I’m not a very hard religious person,” Lewis said. “I do have my faith. But I felt right then and there I was given a second chance on life for a reason, and the reason is to bring home my brothers that weren’t brought home originally.”