POWs in politics -- from war trails to campaign trails

Howard Rutledge spent more than seven years as a prisoner of the North Vietnamese. He was kept in solitary confinement for about five years of that time. His determination to be reunited with his wife, Phyllis, and their four children helped keep him alive.

That same kind of resolve is now leading him into a different type of battle - as a Republican congressional candidate for Oklahoma's Fourth District.

Mr. Rutledge is not the only former Vietnam POW running for Congress this year. John McCain III is a candidate in Arizona, -Eugene McDaniel in North Carolina, and John Dramesi in New Jersey.

An enormous number - 10 percent - of the roughly 250 POWs who have retired from military service since their repatriation have already been candidates for political office.

What makes them run? Why this sudden surge of political activism?

Some say they see politics as another way to serve their country. ''We gave quite a bit and have given up quite a bit and I guess we're in there trying to protect our country,'' says Rutledge.

Their patriotic feelings were reinforced by the open-armed homecoming welcome of the American people. The POWs returned as heroes - perhaps the only ones of the Vietnam war.

''We had a motto when we were in prison: 'Unity before self,' '' he says. Now many POWs apparently are determined to extend this sense of self-sacrifice to the political process. ''I don't need a political career,'' he adds. ''I've had a career. I'm literally trying to serve the people here and the people as a whole.''

All four POW candidates are conservative Republicans who, as Rutledge puts it , offer voters ''less spending, fewer taxes, and less government.'' They also see the need to rebuild US military strength.

Undoubtedly another reason all four are running is the success of compatriot Jeremiah Denton, who won election to the United States Senate from Alabama two years ago. Mr. Denton's victory was the POWs' first big win.

Prior to his success, perhaps only Leo Thorsness had the money and party support to win. But in 1974 he narrowly lost to George McGovern for a South Dakota Senate seat.

It is significant that the first big win by aVietnam POW came the same year Ronald Reagan was elected President.

Mr. Reagan has attended every one of the meetings of Nam POWs Inc., the fraternal organization of former POWs. The last was in Washington shortly after his inauguration.

On July 9, a black-and-white flag with a soldier's profile flew below the US flag atop the White House in celebration of the fourth annual National POW-MIA Recognition Day. Except for the bicentennial banner which was raised in 1976, it was the first time a flag other than the stars and stripes has flown over the White House.

Many POWs share the President's political philosophies, and his special sympathyfor them that can be traced back to an incident that occurred while he was governor of California. While Reagan was acting as host to a group of wives and children of POWs, a child tugged on his sleeve and asked if he could bring his daddy home.

Rutledge, who became a last-minute congressional candidate two years ago and lost a close race, says Nam POWS does not encourage its members to become candidates. But he admits he and other candidates have asked fellow POWs for financial support - an extension of their former relationship.

''When one was down, the rest tried to give him strength,'' says Rutledge. ''We had a community where there was absolute trust and confidence in each other. We share something very basic.''

Though Nam POWs may not be encouraging its membership to run, the National Republican Congressional Committee apparently is. Rutledge has received a commitment for $56,000 in campaign funding from both the NRCC and the Republican National Committee.

All four former POWs could be formidable candidates. McDaniel and McCain, for example, were the Navy liaisons to the US House and Senate respectively until about a year ago. McCain is the son of the late Adm. John McCain II, the former commander of US forces in the Pacific.

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