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Posted on Wed, Apr. 06, 2005

Belatedly, some thanks for Viet vets




 

WASHINGTON - Johnny finally came marching home again on a rainy day in late March in the town of Quincy, Mass. The town turned out to pay its respects to Edward Alan Brudno and to 47 other hometown sons who made the ultimate sacrifice in a war no one wanted.

Al Brudno was one of the longest-held American prisoners of war during Vietnam: He endured nearly eight years of torture and solitary confinement that began when he was shot down over North Vietnam in October 1965. He was 25 then. He survived to come home with the other POWs who were freed in 1973.

Four months later, the day before his 33rd birthday, Al Brudno took his own life. Last Memorial Day, his brother Bob and his widow, Debby, saw his name join the 58,244 others on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, with four more to be added on Memorial Day.

"The outpouring of respect and honor for my brother some 32 years after he died was extraordinary," Bob Brudno said of the ceremony in Quincy. Brudno said it wasn't too late to welcome his brother home and "it is not too late to welcome those who fought and hold inside the same bitterness that has eaten away at me these many years."

Brudno said the ceremony, held before a standing room-only crowd at the local high school, "was from one small town's heart."

In his own speech at that Quincy celebration, Brudno said, "For a while, I wondered why Alan's story attracted so much attention so many years after his death. I now understand. The war is not over for many who served in Vietnam - not just POWs. Unlike any war before Vietnam and none since, this one offered no glory to those sent in harm's way."

He continued, "Alan's generation, our generation, never got to become the `greatest generation.' No less brave than those who landed at Normandy, our men were asked to risk their lives for their country and endure the horrors of war, but were denied the thanks and respect of a grateful nation. Today this country truly understands. I am happy that military service is again a noble calling. But for those of us affected by Vietnam directly or indirectly, the pain will never go away."

Brudno said that even as the crowd recognized the service of his brother, "We must keep in mind the debt still owed to so many. We must never, ever blame the war on the warriors again."

He told the hometown crowd how his brother, a graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who was pursuing his dream of becoming an astronaut when he joined the Air Force, had resisted his captors in every way he could.

Al became a past master at the art of double-talk in the 20 letters that got through to his family during his long imprisonment. Intelligence agencies assigned specialists who, with the help of Al's family, decoded the hidden messages. Some contained clues to the names of American POWs the North Vietnamese had never acknowledged they were holding; others confirmed that the POWs were being tortured.

The Air Force acknowledged that Brudno was a Vietnam War casualty just as surely as anyone who caught an enemy bullet in the jungle. A military psychiatrist explained to Bob Brudno how his brother could give up even as he regained his freedom: "He just used up everything he had over those long years in captivity. There was no strength left with which to survive."

By his death, Al Brudno helped save many other lives. The military was shocked and realized that all the other POWs needed counseling and needed help restarting their lives. All the POWs began receiving that help, and it's now standard procedure for all returning American POWs.

It was 40 years ago this month that I landed in South Vietnam and began covering Americans at war in that place. In my four tours, I lived with and marched with soldiers and Marines and counted myself honored to be welcomed as one of them, through good times and bad.

They were fine young men, average age 19, doing their best to do their duty, doing their best to survive to make it home. What they found when they got home was a nation divided, many of their fellow Americans hating the war they had been ordered to fight. Some even hated them. Some called them baby-killers and murderers. Some spat on them and their uniforms.

Bob Brudno is right. This should never ever happen again in the land of the brave and the home of the free. Next time you see a Vietnam veteran, go over and thank him for his service to our country, then watch the tears come to his eyes.

ABOUT THE WRITER

Joseph L. Galloway is the senior military correspondent for Knight Ridder Newspapers and co-author of the national best-seller "We Were Soldiers Once ... and Young." Readers may write to him at jgalloway@krwashington.com