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To me there is no greater dishonor than to be incorrect about the
details of a particular issue or story I am writing. That is especially
true when it comes to this country’s military veterans and prisoners of
war (Note to Bill Clinton: This column is about our war in Vietnam, and
it involves humility, integrity and a moral obligation so you may want
to quit reading now).

Specifically I’m talking about a mistake I made several weeks ago
when I penned a column
that included a couple of scenarios involving the alleged treatment of
some American POWs during the Vietnam War.

This is an attempt to rectify that mistake and to help heal old
wounds.

The crux of the first column was to relay a couple of alleged
incidents surrounding Jane Fonda’s 1972 visit to North Vietnam in an
attempt to shame ABC and Barbara Walters into not featuring Fonda as one
of this century’s “100 most influential women.” I didn’t expect ABC to
do that, mind you, but I wanted them to be sure millions of Americans
were aware of what they were doing despite being reminded of how badly
Fonda acted during that period of our history.

The most famous of all of Fonda’s activities at the time was when
reporters photographed her sitting atop a North Vietnamese anti-aircraft
gun wearing an NVA “pith” helmet. The press also quoted her making
nefarious statements about U.S. military involvement against the
so-called “peace-loving people of North Vietnam.” What has always been
less reported, however, was Fonda’s misleading characterization of the
North Vietnamese army — a description which masked the terrible
treatment our POWs received while they were “guests” of the North
Vietnamese government. It was this visit to a country openly at war with
ours — regardless of who started it or why — that formed the basis of
the countless charges of treason against her. And it was this premise
that led me to write that first column; I simply felt the truth needed
to be told.

Some of it was told but in my haste to disseminate the information,
unfortunately some of what was told wasn’t accurate. That’s my fault; no
one else’s.

To recap, my first column on this subject offered the following
story, which has since been confirmed as factual by participant Mike
Benge:

“I was a civilian economic development advisor in Vietnam, and was
captured by the North Vietnamese communists in South Vietnam in 1968,
and held for over five years. I spent 27 months in solitary confinement,
one year in a cage in Cambodia, and one year in a ‘black box’ in Hanoi.
My North Vietnamese captors deliberately poisoned and murdered a female
missionary, a nurse in a leprosarium in Ban Me Thuot, South Vietnam,
whom I later buried in the jungle near the Cambodian border.

“At one time, I was weighing approximately 90 lbs. (my normal weight
is 170 lbs.). We were Jane Fonda’s ‘war criminals.’

“When Jane Fonda was in Hanoi, I was asked by the camp communist
political officer if I would be willing to meet with her. I said yes,
for I would like to tell her about the real treatment we POWs were
receiving, which was far different from the treatment purported by the
North Vietnamese, and parroted by Jane Fonda, as ‘humane and lenient.’
Because of this, I spent three days on a rocky floor on my knees with
outstretched arms with a piece of steel re-bar placed on my hands, and
beaten with a bamboo cane every time my arms dipped.

“Jane Fonda had the audacity to say that the POWs were lying about
our torture and treatment. Now ABC is allowing Barbara Walters to honor
Jane Fonda in her feature ’100 Years of Great Women.’ Shame on the
Disney Company.

“I had the opportunity to meet with Jane Fonda for a couple of hours
after I was released. I asked her if she would be willing to debate me
on TV. She did not answer me, her husband (at the time), Tom Hayden,
answered for her. She was mind controlled by her husband. This does not
exemplify someone who should be honored by ’100 Years of Great Women.’

“After I was released, I was asked what I thought of Jane Fonda and
the anti-war movement. I said that I held Joan Baez’s husband in very
high regard, for he thought the war was wrong, burned his draft card and
went to prison in protest. If the other anti-war protesters took this
same route, it would have brought our judicial system to a halt and
ended the war much earlier, and there wouldn’t be as many on that somber
black granite wall called the Vietnam Memorial. This is democracy. This
is the American way.

“Jane Fonda, on the other hand, chose to be a traitor and went to
Hanoi, wore their uniform, propagandized for the communists and urged
American soldiers to desert. As we were being tortured, and some of the
POWs murdered, she called us liars. After her heroes — the North
Vietnamese communists — took over South Vietnam, they systematically
murdered 80,000 South Vietnamese political prisoners. May their souls
rest on her head forever.”

In an e-mail to me, Mike added, “I don’t think the NVA political
officer ever had any intent on my meeting with Fonda, since I had been
captured in South Vietnam, and the NVA were playing the political game
that they weren’t in the South. However, the guy was not our regular
camp political officer, so who the hell knows.”

However, the second story — the one surrounding Col. Larry
Carrigan and Col. Jerry Driscoll — was “bogus; it just never
happened.” I spoke with Col. Driscoll on the phone earlier this week
and he confirmed to me that he had never even been given the opportunity
to meet Fonda, let alone actually coming face-to-face with her while a
POW.

Col. Driscoll did tell me something about his years as a POW
and how some things still haunt him today, such as the permanent
scarring on his right arm from being repetitively tortured while in
handcuffs, the innumerable and brutal “quizzes” (code for
interrogations) and the starvation, beatings and poor living conditions.

The very image of American soldiers, sailors and airmen having to
endure such cruelties ought to at least cause Fonda some sleepless
nights, considering she did, in fact, tell the American people upon her
return from Hanoi that the North Vietnamese were being “humane and
lenient” in their treatment of American POWs. Nothing could be further
from the truth; you have to wonder how much Fonda would enjoy being
repetitively handcuffed and beaten day after day, based on her
description of “humane” and “lenient.”

Interestingly, Col. Driscoll did say he believes that Fonda’s visit,
because of the manner in which she handed the North Vietnamese powerful
propaganda resources, “probably” lengthened his time as a POW “by at
least six months.” She did, you see, admonish the NVA to “hold out a
little longer” so they could be rid of American forces for good. They
did just that and the result was that all the POWs had to wait it out
too. But don’t think they waited it out pain- or torture-free; they
didn’t. Fonda, on the other hand, did; her words and actions had
absolutely no ill effects on her lucrative career or her personal
freedom. That, in and of itself, is a crime.

Words cannot describe how sorry I am for passing on information in a
column that turned out only to be partially correct. To do so has
dishonored those who truly suffered at the hands of Fonda and her
Vietnamese friends. The only repentance I can offer is to apologize
publicly and genuinely try to set the record straight. I hope I’ve done
that.

To Col. Driscoll and Col. Carrigan, please accept my thanks for
taking the time to make sure I got this right. As both of you have
conveyed to me, the truth about Fonda’s actions is bad enough.

I think all would agree — except perhaps Fonda herself, Barbara
Walters and the management at ABC.

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