The Blog

Coming Home

A new photography and essay exhibit tells the story of what happened to our POWs after they came back from Vietnam.

11:00 PM, Nov 19, 2003 • By RACHEL DICARLO
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

"THERE IS NO SUCH THING as a bad day when you have a door knob on the inside of the door," says former Navy commander Paul Galanti.

Galanti, who spent six and a half years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, is one of the 30 subjects of the photography and essay exhibit Open Doors: Vietnam POWs Thirty Years Later touring the country.

The exhibit, now at the Stephen Decatur House Museum in Washington, D.C., was developed by photographer Jamie Howren Quinn and writer Taylor Baldwin Kiland. Kiland, also a former Naval officer, worked on Senator John McCain's presidential campaign. She says her interest was triggered after hearing a reporter ask McCain about his time in captivity and thinking that "these are compelling stories, but it is also really compelling to see how these men rebuilt their lives--both personally and professionally."

After reading up on the subject, she realized that while plenty of information exists on the experiences of the POWs during their captivity, not much is available on their lives after they came home.

Many of the men, Kiland explains, weren't able to lead ideal lives when they returned. All of them had to reestablish bonds with their families. Some had to cope with the death of a child or a spouse, while others' marriages collapsed under the strain of the long absence. Some of the men were in poor physical health or crippled, or dealt with professional letdowns.

What's more, she says, is that for the aviators who were captured time had stood still. They didn't witness the unrest, disillusionment, and conflict the country experienced because of the war, and returned to a country divided about the value of their sacrifice and service.

Kiland and Quinn, contacted a family friend--a former Vietnam POW who introduced them to several more. Through referrals Kiland and Quinn located 30 former Vietnam POWs. The two spent 18 months visiting the POWs at their homes and offices.

They didn't have a standard set of questions. Instead, they became part of the background, observing the men's interactions with their wives, children, grandchildren, and pets, studying the photographs on the refrigerator, and looking at the books on their shelves.

The men are photographed laughing, cooking, seated with their grandchildren or pets, and with their arms around their wives. The accompanying profiles focus on the POWs' lives after they were captured or shot down. "We wanted to know whether their marriages survived, what they had done since their release, about their most exciting trip, how they returned to the emotional rhythms of life," Kiland says.

SOME STILL SUFFER from their injuries, but most are not bitter. Colonel Ben M. Pollard still endures a lot of daily pain. After seven bypasses, two major heart attacks, and an encounter with colitis he says he feels lucky. "Hell, I'm alive. I've gotten 30 years that friends of mine didn't."

Major General Ed Mechenbier says he figures he was within seconds of dying after being ejected from his burning aircraft, and still pinches himself every morning, happy to still be alive. "Being happy doesn't mean everything in the world is wonderful; it means you've just learned to look beyond the imperfections," he says.

Navy pilot C. Everett Southwick describes the first three years of captivity as "stark terror." He says prisoners were sometimes bound with ropes to try to force them to denounce the war. Others were forced to stand for four to five weeks with their arms above their heads. After three divorces and a brain aneurysm, singing and laughing serve as releases for Southwick. He says people "often shake their heads and comment to me that they never could have survived what I have. You know what? They were wrong. The human spirit has amazing fortitude, and faced with such a challenge, can muster incredible strength. Common men have proven this time and time again."

Pictured standing on his front porch next to an American flag, Major Wesley D. Schierman is one of the few who admits he harbors some bitterness. His dismay is aimed towards the country's leaders during the Vietnam era, and he says the more he reads about the country's actions during that time the more jaded he becomes. He says his hobbies, like flying, allow him to keep the past in the back of his mind, where he wants it to be.

Kiland and Quinn accrued close to $85,000 in credit card debit to fund the project and haven't sought a penny in salary. But slowly, through charitable contributions, they are recovering the costs.

Was it worth it? "Totally," Kiland says. "It's hard to put a price tag on sorrow, hardship, or tragedy. They can teach us how to get beyond all of that. That's what we wanted."

Rachel DiCarlo is an editorial assistant at The Weekly Standard.