Hasenfus reflects on costly `blunder'. Captive US flier in Managua explains why he took up the life of a mercenary

Gene Hasenfus feels guilty. Not about being a mercenary, though, and even less about working with the contra guerrillas. He feels bad because he got caught.

``I've got three beautiful children, and I really feel guilty,'' Mr. Hasenfus said in a prison interview. ``You don't realize what you are doing until somebody slams the door. You'd thought about that door, but you never really give it the big thought.''

Hasenfus has plenty of time for thought now, waiting in his Tipitapa jail cell outside Managua while a People's Tribunal ponders the evidence against him. Shot down over southern Nicaragua four weeks ago as he flew arms to rebel forces, he faces a possible 30 years in prison.

``I'm really behind the eight ball here,'' he says of his awkward situation. ``I did make a blunder.''

It began with ``this stupid phone call'' that Hasenfus says he received from an old friend he had flown with during the Vietnam war. The call brought to mind a past that Hasenfus had forgotten during 13 years of peace and quiet in his home town of Marinette, Wis.

It had been a life of adventure in the heyday of United States involvement in Southeast Asia. Flying cargoes for Air America, a US Central Intelligence Agency front company, ``you just bounce all around,'' Hasenfus recalls. ``There was no such thing as holidays.... There never is in a conflict like that.''

But it was better than military life. ``I could stay in the Marines being Joe Blow the grunt, running up and down the hills with a rifle, but here you can go out and you can fly.

``You get paid more money, and you don't have to sleep out in the mud,'' Hasenfus says, explaining why he first joined Air America.

He enjoyed the life. ``Vientiane [the capital of Laos] was a fun town,'' he remembers. ``And so was Saigon. It was fast moving all the time. Vientiane was a place where it seemed like at night everybody forgot about what was going on.

``Everybody would come in, go to the same places, and get drunk together, then the next day go out and fight each other.''

Eventually, though, the dangers began to outweigh the excitement. ``The war was de-escalating very much, and when the unilateral cease-fire took place, we were going into more and more dangerous places with no cover, no nothing, and they were literally just blowing us out of the sky, and for what?'' he says.

``Why go in there and do it?'' he wondered. ``It was just stupid, so I terminated it myself.''

Hasenfus went home to Marinette, where he had grown up, and married Sally. ``It was time to settle down, and she managed to put up with me until I'd calmed down quite a bit.''

Working in construction, raising a family, Hasenfus left his adventurous youth behind. Occasionally, though, former colleagues would enter his quiet Wisconsin life.

``Now and then you'd receive phone calls,'' he remembers. ``My wife thought these people were crazy. It'd be two or three in the morning, depending on the different time zones of the world that they were in. But they'd be drinking and partying someplace and think, `Old Gene, wonder what he's doing - I've got his phone number, let's call.'''

``There you are, you'd talk. But otherwise, some of these reunions that were held, I never went to them.''

Then last June, Hasenfus received another call from an old friend, but in a more businesslike vein. He was offered the chance to do his old Vietnam job, for $3,000 a month, in Central America.

``I said, `I don't really know, it don't really sound that good,''' Hasenfus recalls. ``But it dug at your soul a little, and you start thinking more on it, and you say, `I hate to throw it aside.'''

``You wake up in the middle of the night, and say `I wonder what's really happening. Let's give it a try.'''

That curiosity led him to El Salvador, where the contra supply operations were based, over Nicaragua, where he was shot down, and now to Tipitapa, for reflection.

Hasenfus becomes defensive when asked what he thought about his job - fighting other people's wars for money, doing work that generally is seen as fit only for the lowest of the low. ``If you are getting paid to do a job like that, that comes under Webster's as a mercenary, I believe,'' Hasenfus says sullenly.

But he cannot quite face the term himself. ``I wouldn't use it, would you?'' he asks. ``Not unless you are one of those braggarts who say, `I'm one of these soldiers of fortune, ain't I brave.' There's a few of these Rambos around, but none of us considers ourselves stuff like that.

``You don't like to call yourself a mercenary. But if that's the name that's pinned on it, I have to live with it.''

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