Sight of POWs recalls Vietnam Loved ones haunted by years of worry WAR IN THE GULF

February 01, 1991|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- Carol McDaniel doesn't know any of those Americans currently being held as prisoners of war by Iraqis. She doesn't know their families or even recall their names.

But she knows enough.

Enough so that when she heard about the recent capture of servicemen in the Persian Gulf, she cried for two days.

"I knew what those families were going through," she said.

Mrs. McDaniel's husband was held prisoner for nearly seven years during the Vietnam War. The memories of that long captivity, she said, haunt her even more than they do her husband, retired Air Force Col. Norman McDaniel.

"He's gotten over it more than I have," said the Camp Springs woman. "I've always had a hard time talking about it -- especially now. It's probably true that the families suffer a lot more than the men in emotional ways."

While returned POWs from previous wars have told of the horrors they endured, their relatives -- as well as the families of servicemen still "missing in action" -- say they endured a quiet sort of torture of their own, a kind of pain some are still dealing with decades later.

"This war has been tearing wounds open again," said Edna Hicks of Kensington, whose son, Terrin D. Hicks, was never found after his plane crashed in Vietnam in 1968. "It brings it all back and makes me feel for those families. I can see the chaplain coming to their door saying, 'An aircraft is missing and your son was the pilot of that aircraft.' That's what happened to me."

"When the Vietnam War ended, I hoped no one would ever have to go through what we did," said Delia Alvarez, sister of then-Navy Lt. j.g. Everett Alvarez Jr. of Rockville, the first American shot down over North Vietnam in 1964, who was held prisoner for 8 1/2 years. "I know how hard it is. You're dealing with the unknown -- it's a very scary feeling, a very isolated, helpless feeling. No matter what, POWs become the pawns of war -- along with their families."

Her family, for instance, was torn apart by the stress and trauma. Her parents split up during the time her brother was held and eventually divorced. Delia Alvarez became an outspoken anti-war activist, causing friction and divisions within the large family, some of whom still resent her. And five years into his captivity, Lieutenant Alvarez's wife left him to marry another man.

"That's why I felt so sad when the war started," said Ms. Alvarez, of Santa Clara, Calif. "I know what's in [store] for a lot of these families."

Mr. Alvarez, who remarried soon after his return, said he "detached" himself emotionally from his family while imprisoned. The tremendous weight of thinking about your family adds to the pressure. You have to concentrate on yourself -- your survival is key."

Many returned POWs, in fact, believe their families may have suffered more emotional hardships than they themselves did.

"It was far worse for my wife than it was for me," said Kevin McManus of Oakton, Va., who was held by the North Vietnamese for six years, leaving a newlywed at home. "We know what condition we're in. The families, of course, have no idea what's happened to you. They had a thousand and one things to think about. We only had one thing -- how to survive."

His wife, Mary Jane McManus, still bristles at the information POW wives and family members were given by the U.S. military. "We were given pep talks by psychologists who told us not to expect too much when they came home. They said they'd be withdrawn, they wouldn't trust people. They were talking about completely changed personalities. It was totally and completely wrong. I still

resent having been told that."

Beyond that, she said, she was told her husband probably wouldn't be able to have children because of injuries inflicted upon him.

"We have seven," she said with a laugh. "I guess he was committed to proving that one wrong."

Tammy Alvarez, Mr. Alvarez's current wife, believes that in the early days of the Vietnam War, "The military and the psychologists were not prepared to handle the family, even though they probably needed support more than the prisoners. The prisoners had each other."

Also in the early days, say POW families, they were instructed not to talk about their captured relatives to anyone. "We were originally told not to say 'Boo,' " said Mrs. McManus.

Mr. McManus' sister, Karen McManus, said the military wouldn't give her the names of other POWs held with her brother.

Eventually, however, families located one another and began to talk and meet. "When we saw [former POW and former U.S. senator] Jeremiah Denton blinking out 'torture' in Morse code, -- we figured there wasn't much we could do to hurt the men anymore," said Karen McManus, of Alexandria, Va.

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