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
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
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