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.