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NEWS | Sept. 21, 2022

The ghosts of Vietnam linger with the surviving spouse of former POW

By Jim Bono 502nd Air Base Wing Public Affairs

According to historians, the Vietnam Conflict is considered America’s second longest war with only our involvement in Afghanistan exceeding it by five months. It holds an outsized place in our collective historical and cultural memories.

For families of those who served in recent conflicts, they have stayed in the minds of the public and were supported by sympathetic media and various support organizations. However, families of those who served in Vietnam had it much differently.

The POW/MIA question came to dominate the post-war years, so much so that the POW/MIA flag was created for the National League of Families of American Prisoners and Missing in Southeast Asia and is officially recognized by the U.S. Congress

America had almost 2,500 servicemen captured during the entirety of the Vietnam Conflict as opposed to a handful in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Most of those captured were eventually determined to have been killed in action. The POWs in Vietnam suffered a much different fate, with families largely on their own to determine the condition of their loved ones. 

The origins of the POW/MIA issue date back to the war itself. Suffering from a lack of accurate intelligence, the United States never had a solid knowledge of how many U.S. prisoners of war were being held by North Vietnam or their locations. The Nixon administration had made the return of POWs one of the central reasons for prolonging the war and bringing North Vietnam to the bargaining table.

Karen Sweetland’s then-husband Navy Lt. Charles E. Southwick was shot down and captured on May 14, 1967, during a strike mission against the famous Than Hoa bridge in North Vietnam.

At that time, Lt. Southwick was flying off the USS Kittyhawk in an F-4 Phantom. Sweetland found out through her father, a high-ranking U.S. Air Force officer, that his plane was shot down, but a parachute was spotted. The Navy listed Lt. Southwick as Missing in Action but assumed he had been captured. Sweetland had no word from her husband for several years, nor did the U.S. Navy provide much support or information.  Eventually, he was able to get letters sent to her periodically.

“There started to be communication coming from him, rarely I might add, and most of it was not intended for me. It was all coded messages that I forwarded to Washington D.C.,” Sweetland said

Sweetland had grown up in a military family and was well versed in dealing with its culture.

“I was worried because there were so many young women, brides of junior naval officers who had no experience in the military at all,” she said. “They had no thick skin to deal with any of the emotional baggage that they were going to have to handle and there was really no support for any of us."

Lt. Southwick was repatriated on Mar 4, 1973, after more than six years of captivity, much of which involved being continually moved by his North Vietnamese captors. While the military did its best for men like Southwick, it was not prepared for the emotional toll captivity took on them or the families left behind.

Due to the lessons learned from Vietnam’s POWs and the more recent long-term captivity of Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, the U.S. Army created a personnel recovery or “reintegration” organization that serves both the POW and their families. 

U.S. Army South at Joint Base San Antonio-Fort Sam Houston was chosen in March of 2002 as the home of the unit that would eventually serve as the reintegration center for the entire Department of Defense and support to most of the federal government. Reintegration is the process of care for recovered Department of Defense personnel immediately following an isolating event. Its purpose is to debrief, decompress, provide for their physical and mental health, and return them to duty as quickly as possible.

Reintegration is accomplished in three phases; one is conducted near the point of recovery and focuses on immediate medical care, emotional support, debriefing and transition. Phase two establishes a medical care plan, emotional decompression and initial debriefing. 

Phase three includes the “Yellow Ribbon” event when the family and recovered individuals are at last reunited and can begin the journey back to life as it was before captivity.

“When these Soldiers or service members put their lives on the line and go out and do these things away from their family, there will be somebody to take care of you when you come back,” said Sgt. 1st Class Craig Chambers, who served as Personnel Recovery Coordination Cell, or PRCC, noncommissioned officer in charge in 2020.

The lessons of the Vietnam conflict were vast, but perhaps its most enduring legacy is our ability to better care for our POWs, veterans and their families.