POW-Bracelet.jpg

No One Left Behind

“There is, in maturity, a crystallization of perspective.  The overwhelming majority of those who buy beer and munch hungrily the television news while eating pizzas are — young people.  There is a sense in which they bring to the news their theatrical demands for perspective, for apocalyptic confrontations.” —  William F. Buckley, Jr.

I think Buckley was largely correct on this, as on most everything else. At 51, and with few exceptions, I can’t bring myself to get as worked up over everyday occurrences as I once did. But there are exceptions, the treatment of those who don our nation’s uniform and put their lives on the line being preeminent among them. And on this topic I find no room for moderation.

A film is being shown today at the Hot Docs film festival in Toronto. It’s a documentary. The Emmy Award winning filmmaker, Michael Jorgensen, says that when the film is shown at the G.I. Film Festival in Washington DC next month, Americans will, “come unglued.” Why? Because the movie, Unclaimed, takes us to a little village in south central Vietnam, where we come face to face with a man who may very well be an American POW, left behind by his own government.  

The film follows the single-minded mission of Vietnam veteran Tom Faunce, a man who, after a troubled childhood, went on to spend 27 months in combat in Vietnam before turning to drugs and alcohol upon his return to what we used to call, “the world,” back home. His eventual conversion to Christianity compelled him to live out the credo: “radical love; no one left behind; no one left unloved,” by returning to southeast Asia in 2008, where he heard of one John Hartley Robertson. The story was that Robertson, now in his 70s, was living in Vietnam, having married the Vietnamese nurse who had helped take care of him. A Green Beret, Master Sergeant, Robertson was shot down over Laos in 1968. He has been listed as Killed in Action, and his name is etched on the Vietnam Memorial in Washington DC.  

In 2011, Faunce set out to learn for himself the veracity of the rumors. As the film unfolds, Faunce eventually negotiates various hurdles, including some placed by our own government, and succeeds in his quest. The frail and slumped 76 year-old man, father of four, married to the Vietnamese nurse, now speaks only Vietnamese and answers to a Vietnamese name.  ”His memory was in tatters,” writes theglobeandmail.com:

…unable to conjure even a seemingly simple fact like his birthday or the names of his two American children. And when he did remember, the recollections often were wrong or difficult to confirm. The U.S. military, moreover, refused any help or information.

MSG-Robertson.jpgWith evidence of wounds, the possibility of brain injuries, and what appeared to be dementia, Robertson said (through an interpreter) that he had been confined to a bamboo cage by the North Vietnamese. Accused of being a CIA spy, he was tortured. He was eventually released, confused and injured, to the care of the nurse he would later marry, assuming the name of her dead husband.  

Through his own tenacity — and the luck of a former military friend of Robertson’s who knew he was from Alabama and had seen an obituary of a lady thought to be Robertson’s mother — Tom Fance was able to find Robertson’s sole surviving sibling, his 80-year-old sister, Jean Robertson-Holly.  

She hadn’t the first clue her brother might still be alive. Eventually, a meeting was arranged, resulting in a tearful reunion that leaves not a single dry eye in the house. “To tell you the truth, after I interviewed him the time, I was 90 percent sure he is MIA,” said Hugh Tran, who accompanied Faunce and Jorgensen to Vietnam as a translator, adding, “I still didn’t believe … until I saw the family reunion.”  

As the reunion progressed, memories began to surface. Looking at Jean’s husband, Henry, Robertson said, “Oh, I remember, you worked in the drugstore.” No one had previously mentioned to Robertson that Henry had in fact worked for 50 years as a pharmacist. Meanwhile, Robertson has returned to his life in Vietnam, with his wife and children, having fulfilled his wish to see his American family before he dies. And, really, who could blame him? His Vietnamese family was there for him when his own government gave up. As a reportedly high-placed government official told the filmmaker, “It’s not that the Vietnamese won’t let him (Robertson) go; it’s that our government doesn’t want him.”  

And therein lies the problem. I’ve read various documents, declassified messages, and theories. I’ve read of President Reagan’s putative efforts to recover live POWs and how it all fell apart early in his first term. I’ve read former SecDef Caspar Weinberger’s remark that they did have reason to believe Americans were still being held. I’ve also read the statements of one retired colonel who says he was the Deputy Director, Defense POW-MIA Office, and who maintains that:  

All U.S. POWs captured during the Vietnam War were released, either at Operation Homecoming (spring 1973) or earlier.  The only men captured and not released are 113 who died in captivity; their identities and the circumstances of their deaths are known; some of their remands have been recovered/returned. 

Well, from my own experience with official ineptitude, and seeing our government abandon men under fire in Benghazi, and knowing that to this day the government looks for any conceivable way to cut corners in caring for my best friend, Bob Lee, who is disabled due to his own service, you might charitably call me skeptical of the good colonel’s definitive confidence.  

Many of us wear POW/MIA bracelets. The show truck I drive has as its most prominent feature several POW/MIA emblems emblazoned in the design. Good people served. Good people died. Good people were taken captive. And it may very well be that good people, like Master Sergeant John H. Robertson, are still out there someplace.

Damnit, we are better than this, …better than the hide-bound bureaucrats (in and out of uniform) and better than the politicians who won’t even lay their careers on the line to defend the Constitution, let alone their very lives. The words on the emblems, on the license plates, on the flags, and on the POW bracelet that I wear each and every day are not idle commentary — they are a blood oath. “Bring ‘Em Home Or Send Us Back.” If the bastards in Washington won’t do it, we will. Send us.

  1. Brasidas

    This is heartbreaking, Dave. The thought of men left behind after we pulled out of Vietnam has always been nearly too much to bear.  Perhaps because of that, I’d chosen to believe that these stories weren’t true.  

    Am I recalling correctly that John McCain publicly chastised the leader of a POW/MIA advocacy group sometime in the 80s for raising false hopes among loved ones back home?  If so, I wonder if he has maintained that stance ever since.  Regardless, I’ll be anxious to see Unclaimed.

  2. DocJay

    Our governments have been letting our soldiers down for a long time. One can look at the Humvee, IED fiasco and know we can do better.

  3. Valiuth

    I am sure some how the Sequester is to blame for this.

    Remarkable story by the way Dave. 

  4. BrentB67

    I am in Dave. When do we leave?

  5. flownover

    Dave

    Thanks but I don’t trust this lot to respect Americans at war, at work or anywhere. They’re just not that into us .

    Schadenfreude alert : They do feel alienated though !!

    Defense alert : Watch those who don’t appear to love the same country you do.

    Hey-beats a cave on Okinawa !

  6. BrentB67
    Dave Carter: @ George Rapp: Thanks for bringing those to my attention. I haven’t seen the film, though I intend to do so at the first opportunity. There are several unanswered questions in my mind, including the DNA issue. Unfortunately, given my experience with the government, and its established track record, I take official denials with more than a grain of salt. I’d like to learn much more on this, but in the meantime, sadly, I don’t think cases like this are implausible nor improbable. · 9 hours ago

    I agree that this is plausible and even probable. I am just thankful that these cases also appear to be rare. That should never stop us from seeking a perfect record.

  7. x

    I don’t doubt the government’s incompetence, but to read the post I get the impression he may have chosen to stay, which is not the same as being left behind.  Do we have some way of knowing which it is?

  8. Dave Carter
    C
    BrentB67: I am in Dave. When do we leave? · 4 minutes ago

    Therein lies the problem, doesn’t it.  As far as I can tell, we’d be dependent on Uncle for the logistics, and Uncle doesn’t seem well disposed to that kind of thing.  If he can be convinced to change his mind, however…

  9. Dave Carter
    C
    GayFreedomLover: I don’t doubt the government’s incompetence, but to read the post I get the impression he may have chosen to stay, which is not the same as being left behind.  Do we have some way of knowing which it is? · 5 minutes ago

    I gather from the articles on the documentary that yes, after being held against his will and tortured, unable to come home, he eventually gave up and “went native.”  If your government gives up on even trying to find you, it limits your options and in that sense, he was left behind. Evidently, he had lost his ability to communicate in English, and as the articles explain, he has a family there.  His country forgot him.  He forgot his country.  Old and frail now, he evidently just wants to spend his remaining time his family in Vietnam.  

  10. x
    Dave Carter

    GayFreedomLover: I don’t doubt the government’s incompetence, but to read the post I get the impression he may have chosen to stay, which is not the same as being left behind.  Do we have some way of knowing which it is? · 5 minutes ago

    I gather from the articles on the documentary that yes, after being held against his will and tortured, unable to come home, he eventually gave up and “went native.”  If your government gives up on even trying to find you, it limits your options and in that sense, he was left behind. Evidently, he had lost his ability to communicate in English, and as the articles explain, he has a family there.  His country forgot him.  He forgot his country.  Old and frail now, he evidently just wants to spend his remaining time his family in Vietnam.   · 8 minutes ago

    I understand his decision now.  Almost anyone would make the  same one under those circumstances.  I was just unclear on what he was thinking at the end of the war.  Perhaps given the captivity, torture, etc. that’s almost a meaningless question.  He was probably barely able to make decisions at all.

  11. Ross C

    I don’t understand the POW MIA issue and its traction among Americans.  Plenty of well meaning folks of greater and lesser stature have delved into this with no results.  I do not suspect a conspiracy.  Does the documentary suggest that this man was held against his will for 40 years?  Who benefited from that?

    Massive mistakes have been made by military leaders that have cost thousands of American lives for no purpose at all.  These things are generally classified and forgotten and no one is punished and somehow we can live with that, but not this?  Assuming this is all true, would it be better if this man had died than lived the life he did?

  12. The Mugwump

    Politicians are a uniquely shameless lot.  They are drawn mainly from the ranks of lawyers who have little use for either truth or justice.  The chief attributes of a bureaucrat are inertia and indifference.  “Getting it done” would require personal initiative which is why the lazy and incompetent find their way into government service in such numbers.

    The military man is motivated by honor and loyalty.  These twin virtues are necessary to ensure military cohesion in times of duress.  They manifest as self-sacrifice and heroism.  There is a nobility to the military character that goes mostly unrecognized by men of baser temperament.  When ignoble men control the levers of power, injustice is the norm.

    At age 56 I have little faith in justice meted out by men.  I can only say Godspeed you, Dave Carter, on your quest.  Yours is a worthy effort even if it goes unrecognized.  May your thirst for the truth be quenched someday, if not in this life then the next.

    God bless.   

  13. Publicola

    Our current conflicts have resulted in a number of POW/MIA. It appears that most have been recovered.

    http://www.cnn.com/SPECIALS/2003/iraq/forces/pow.mia/

    http://staff.ycp.edu/~jblades/powsoidaef.html

    It is my understanding that US Army Specialist Bowe Bergdahl still has not been released. Perhaps we could offer him and his family our prayers.

  14. George Rapp

    Dave, just to present another possible aspect to this discussion, Michael Yon (self-funded embedded reporter in Iraq and Afghanistan) doesn’t believe this is legitimate: https://www.facebook.com/MichaelYonFanPage/posts/10151431673610665

    The National League of POW/MIA Families is also disputing the accuracy of the film: https://www.facebook.com/notes/national-league-of-powmia-families/information-regarding-john-hartley-robertson-reporting-and-unclaimed/10151569836768850

  15. Pilli

    The government hasn’t only abandoned POWs and MIAs.  It is abandoning our current returning vets.  The VA is over 125 days backlogged in processing benefit requests from returning veterans many of whom are disabled.  Some areas of the US are more than 600 days behind.  See Here and Here.  A majority of senators have asked Obama why and have demanded action to fix the problem.

    Think it will happen?

  16. Robert E. Lee

    How many more?

  17. jpark

    Dave,

    Thank you for this piece.

    I don’t know whether the Ride of Pride has ever visited Rolling Thunder in DC on Memorial Day.  Rolling Thunder rides for, among other things, MIAs and POWs.  I don’t ride but I visited a couple years ago and wrote a piece that was published here:

    http://spectator.org/archives/2010/06/09/the-reason-for-rolling-thunder

    Thank you, once again,

    jpark

  18. Richard Fulmer
    Dave,     Can we help Bob Lee by organizing a Ricochet collection for him?
  19. Dave Carter
    C

    @ George Rapp: Thanks for bringing those to my attention. I haven’t seen the film, though I intend to do so at the first opportunity. There are several unanswered questions in my mind, including the DNA issue. Unfortunately, given my experience with the government, and its established track record, I take official denials with more than a grain of salt. I’d like to learn much more on this, but in the meantime, sadly, I don’t think cases like this are implausible nor improbable.

  20. Robert E. Lee
    Richard Fulmer: Dave,     Can we help Bob Lee by organizing a Ricochet collection for him? · 23 minutes ago

    Thank you but no, I’m doing  OK.  Still fighting the VA, which is normal for veterans, but I have a loving and patient saint of a wife who puts up with me, a nice home, and enough income to get by.  In the mornings, after my Aricept, I can even think clearly enough to be semi-coherent, depending on who you talk to.

    No, the folks that need attention are those who are being steam-rollered by the system.  I wish everyone could visit a VA hospital to see how veterans are treated.  I wish all recruiting offices were required to be located in VA hospitals so new recruits can see what they are getting into.

    Thank you for the kind thoughts.