BORIS YELTSIN'S declaration that "there may be Vietnam-era United States POWs in Soviet prisons" is a cruel statement that will undoubtedly provide little relief for the families of men listed as MIA/POW.
It is time to stop waiting for government officials to tell us what has happened to those still listed as missing in action. It is time for individual US citizens to conduct their own investigations and learn the truth for themselves. This is exactly what I did, and it healed a 23-year-old wound.
On September 27, 1990, Ann Landers helped me locate the family of John Martin, who had been incorrectly listed as MIA for many years. At the time of his death, Captain Martin was flying a mission with my boyfriend, Lt. James Badley, who had managed to bail out on that fatal flight. Later, Jim wrote me that there was no way John could have survived the crash, though the Air Force would list him as MIA until a thorough investigation was completed.
Over the years I had occasionally thought of John Martin. I had always assumed that his status had been correctly changed to "killed in action," based on the eyewitness reports. Imagine my shock when I visited the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C., 23 years later and discovered that he was still officially MIA. I thought of the years of needless doubt that must have plagued his family.
The day my letter appeared in Ms. Landers's column, I received telephone calls from Martin's son, his widow, four daughters, three brothers, and one sister. My worst fears were realized as I listened to the stories of what the past 23 years had been like for them.
Therese Boice, John's sister from Imperial, Pa., said, "I always thought that someday they'd find him or at least his body. I guess I thought he might still be alive up until the time the American prisoners were released in Vietnam." James Martin, his brother from Tafford, Pa., told me, "We've learned more from you in one day than we've learned from the Air Force in 23 years."
And Cindy Martin Wayson, John's oldest daughter from Alamogordo, N.M., said, "We all thought he was alive for a long time - even up to this point. So today is like a release, but it's also kind of like finding out he just died. It hurts, but it's a relief! Some peace now."
The evidence I had of Martin's death was not that extensive, but it was from eyewitnesses who had reached a conclusion based on what they saw the day of the accident. Jim Badley wrote a letter that described the fatal mission in great detail. He stated that, in his opinion, John could not have survived.
This conclusion was supported in a taped message by Maj. Robert Bunker, a helicopter pilot who had rescued Jim and then had searched in vain for John. The Air Force's official MIA listing had been based on the fact that Martin's body was not recoverable from the submerged wreckage of the aircraft.
FROM my personal experience, I now know there are two ways we can work to uncover the fate of many Vietnam MIAs. If you are a family member of a current MIA, write the military and request all of his military records.
Once you have studied the records, list all the names of people who served with your MIA in Vietnam. Then write and ask what they know about the circumstances surrounding the missing status of your loved one.
Jim Badley's sister did that after he was shot down the second time and listed as MIA. She sent a stamped, partially-addressed envelope to the Air Force Locator: HQ AFMPC/MPCD003, Randolph AFB, TX 78150. For the Army write: Retired Army Locator Service, HQDA DACF-FRV, Alexandria, VA 22331-0522. For the Navy write: Commanding Officer, Navy Finance Center, Cleveland, OH 44199-2058.
Jim's sister asked the Air Force Locator to forward her letters. She gave the Locator all the information she had on each serviceman she was looking for: complete name, rank, and location during the time he served with Badley. Many of the letters reached their destination. The information she received convinced her that Jim had been killed in action. This same procedure can be adapted to any branch of the military.
The other way to uncover the fate of Vietnam MIAs is for Vietnam veterans to contact the families of men listed as MIA and tell them what they know of the circumstances surrounding the MIA status. I didn't know this when I first wrote to Ann Landers, but the National League of Families of American Prisoners and Missing in Southeast Asia (1001 Connecticut Ave. NW, Suite 219, Washington, D.C. 20036) will forward letters to the families of MIAs.
If you have thought of passing on information about an MIA, do it today. The families will welcome any information you have. Your action will contribute to the beginning of a healing process that needs to take place within ourselves and our nation.