P.O.W.S: A Celebration of Men Redeemed

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"When the prisoners came back from World War II," said one doctor at Clark, "we almost killed them with T-bone steaks, ice cream and companionship." The plan this time was to shield the captives from all fanfare and confusion as they emerged from their long limbo. Their diets would be relatively bland for the time being, although the hospital was prepared to feed rice and nuoc mam, the pungent Vietnamese fish sauce, to any man who might have become addicted to native fare. No champagne or beer toasts are likely for a while; the prisoners had at least 72 hours of medical tests to go through first. Then there would be psychiatric tests and some military debriefings, mostly to extract possible information about the fate of some of the 1,300 Americans still listed as missing in action.

Soon after their arrival, the prisoners would make a 15-minute NOK (next of kin) phone call—a joyful if sometimes eerie experience for men long out of touch with their wives, parents, children. Each "returnee" would be measured and fitted for a hand-tailored uniform. Each would be advised of the back pay and benefits he had accumulated while sitting in his Vietnamese cell. In some cases, that meant the sudden accession of modest wealth. One pilot imprisoned for nearly six years has a hefty $154,000 waiting for him, partly the result of the $5-a-day bonus granted for men who are held captive.

Some of the prisoners might require extended medical treatment at Clark, but quite a few would doubtless be ready in three or four days for the next leg of their trip back to normality—the flight to California's Travis Air Force Base. They would go on to military hospitals near their homes, and the first reunions with their families. It would be a normality that would take some getting used to. The average prisoner had been away for four years; some, like Army Major Floyd Thompson and

Navy Lieut. Commander Everett Alvarez, had been gone for more than eight. There would be a Rip Van Winkle effect, the dislocating experience of time-travel to a startlingly changed American culture (see THE ESSAY), to young brides suddenly turning 30 and remembered babies now on the verge of adolescence. To ease the cultural shock, one prisoner's wife arranged for a barber to be available any time of day or night to cut their son's long hair just before they go to see the father at the hospital on his return. Convicts at least have visiting days, have television and newspapers to describe the changing tastes of the society outside. The prisoners' homecoming might be a dazing and sometimes unnerving joy (see box, page 18). The war had wrenched them abruptly, violently, out of their lives, deposited them in an utterly alien world of defenselessness, helplessness. Their road home would be much longer than the flight from Clark to Travis.

The first group to be released included eight American civilians, seven of whom had been working in Viet Nam for the Agency for International Development. Highest-ranking among them was Foreign Service Officer Douglas Kent Ramsey, 38, who was ambushed and captured while driving in a Jeep in Hau Nghia province in 1966.

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