NEW YORK – Though he immediately backtracked, presidential candidate Donald Trump reopened the controversy over Sen. John McCain's service during the Vietnam War and his subsequent handling of the post-war POW issue by questioning whether the Arizona Republican should be regarded as a hero.
McCain, whose father and grandfather were four-star Navy admirals, has been commended throughout his career in the Senate for enduring five-and-a-half years in the infamous "Hanoi Hilton" prison in North Vietnam.
But various critics, including Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist Sydney H. Schanberg, have charged that McCain, working with fellow Vietnam veteran and then-Sen. John F. Kerry, D-Mass., suppressed information about POWs believed to have been left behind by the U.S. government at the end of the Vietnam War.
In a 2008 article published by the Nation Institute when McCain was the Republican nominee for president, Schanberg wrote that the senator, who had risen to political prominence based on his war-hero image, "has, inexplicably, worked very hard to hide from the public stunning information about American prisoners in Vietnam who, unlike him, didn't return home."
"Throughout his Senate career, McCain has quietly sponsored and pushed into federal law a set of prohibitions that keep the most revealing information about these men buried as classified documents," Schanberg wrote.
Read Schanberg's article revealing disturbing allegations the Arizona senator "has, inexplicably, worked very hard to hide from the public stunning information about American prisoners in Vietnam who, unlike him, didn't return home."
"Thus the war hero who people would logically imagine as a determined crusader for the interests of POWs and their families became instead the strange champion of hiding the evidence and closing the books," he concluded.
On Saturday, after days of trading barbs, Donald Trump said in remarks at the Family Leadership Summit in Ames, Iowa, that McCain is "not a war hero."
"He was a war hero because he was captured. I like people who weren’t captured," Trump said.
Speaking to reporters afterward, Trump denied saying that McCain isn’t a war hero.
But he said McCain has "done very little for the veterans."
"I’m very disappointed in John McCain,” Trump said.
13 years in captivity
The case of U.S. Marine Pfc. Robert R. Garwood, while complicated, continues to provide evidence that U.S. POWs were still alive in Southeast Asia, at least through 1979, when Garwood finally returned to the U.S. after more than 13 years captivity.
This is despite repeated claims made by the U.S. government at the time and since that there were no POWS left in Southeast Asia after 591 returned to the U.S. in Operation Homecoming in 1973.
The final report of the House Select Committee on Missing Persons in Southeast Asia on Dec. 13, 1976, spelled out the committee's conclusion (pages 238-239) that after 15 months of investigation "no Americans are still being held alive as prisoners in Indochina, or elsewhere, as a result of the war in Indochina."
The House select committee, created as a result of a resolution introduced by Rep. G. V. (Sonny) Montgomery, D-Miss., on March 18, 1975, stressed its agreement with "the national intelligence community statement that there is no reliable evidence that any unaccounted for POWs/MIAs are still being held in Indochina represents a careful, studied assessment of all intelligence information during the past 15 years."
The Garwood case began Sept. 28, 1965, when the Viet Cong captured the Marine as he wandered from camp near Marble Mountain at China Beach, a short distance from Da Nang.
Radio Hanoi reported at the time that a Viet Cong convoy, after a fierce firefight with a Marine that got lost, took the Marine prisoner.
Garwood, a motor-pool specialist assigned to the 3rd Marine Division, who was 19 years old at the time of his captivity, had only 12 days left on his tour in Vietnam and was looking forward to returning home to California, where he planned to marry his high-school sweetheart from Indiana.
In 1979, after pleading for help in a note passed to a World Bank official in Hanoi, the Vietnamese sent Garwood back to the United States, where the Department of Defense promptly court-martialed him. The U.S. alleged Garwood eventually became a collaborator who went over to the Viet Cong and fought against American troops in Vietnam.
Immediately after his capture by the Viet Cong, Garwood was held in a POW regional detention camp, Camp Khu, northwest of Da Nang, along with two U.S. Army prisoners.
Brutal daily life
As reported by Monika Jensen-Stevenson in her 1997 book, "Spite House: The Last Secret of the War in Vietnam," on page 92, two South Vietnam Army of the Republic of Viet Nam soldiers held at Camp Khu with Garwood, upon their release in January 1966, brought with them a letter written by Garwood to his mother.
The ARVN soldiers documented the cruelty of the North Vietnamese to the POWS at Camp Khu, as Jensen-Stevenson chronicled:
They [the ARVN soldiers released from Camp Khu] testified to the cruelty of the camp commandant and guards. Daily Life was brutally difficult, they reported. The prisoners had suffered from diseases that resulted from an unfamiliar and inadequate diet. Dysentery, edema, skin fungus, and eczema were rampant. The POWs were moved regularly to avoid detection by American troops. The VC [Viet Cong] guards, they said, were particularly abusive to American POWs. For any minor infraction, including conversation with other POWs, the Americans were buried, held for days in a cage with no protection from insects, deprived of food and water, shackled, and beaten regularly. Those who resisted the most were executed. Usually it was slow death by torture.
Garwood had not been included in a release of prisoners as a gesture to celebrate the Vietnamese new year, Tet, Jansen-Stevenson reported. He had been held as one of the hard-core resisters, despite constant psychological efforts to indoctrinate them.
According to Lt. Col. Gary D. Solis, U.S. Marine Corps History and Museum director, in his 2013 book "Marines and Military Law in Vietnam: Trial by Fire," Garwood eventually succumbed and asked to join the National Liberation Front.
The allegations against Garwood included charges that he adopted the Vietnamese name Nguyen Chien Dau and fought for the Viet Cong as part of the Military Proselytizing Section of Military Region 5. He allegedly wrote propaganda messages and broadcast them by loudspeaker near Marine bases, and assisted the Viet Cong in guarding and indoctrinating U.S. prisoners in the MR-5 POW camp in the village of Tra Khe, Tra Bong District, Quang Ngai Province.
On Feb. 5, 1981, the court-martial convicted Garwood of communicating with the enemy and assaulting a U.S. POW. He was sentenced to reduction in rank to private, subjected to loss of all pay and allowances, and given a dishonorable discharge.
"Somehow Garwood had become a metaphor for wholesale betrayal," Jansen Stevenson noted on page 97 of her 1997 book, arguing that the most that could be proved with certainty against Garwood at his court martial was that he had served as a prison guard for the Viet Cong and struck a U.S. POW in the face.
"After 1975, Garwood's captors repeatedly took pains to drum it into him that the U.S. government had officially taken the position that no American prisoners were left behind," Jansen-Stevenson noted on page 229. "Garwood did not want to believe this even though a statement made in 1973 to the media by National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger, that all American prisoners had been returned, was played over the camp loudspeaker."
No one imagined he would walk out alive
In 1981, this reporter was recruited to serve on a task force headed by Dallas-based psychiatrist David Hubbard, an expert in skyjacking, political violence and terrorism. The panel was organized under the auspices of the U.S. Agency for International Development to train U.S. State Department staff stationed in dangerous assignments overseas how to survive hostage situations such as had occurred in 1979 with U.S. Embassy personnel in Tehran held hostage for 444 days following the Iranian revolution led by Ayatollah Khomeini.
After receiving top-secret clearance through the auspices of USAID, this reporter assisted Hubbard in conducting a series of videotaped debriefing interviews with Garwood.
"No one in the State Department or Pentagon ever imagined Garwood would walk out of Vietnam alive," Hubbard concluded, "even though there were many reports prior to 1979 that he was living in Vietnam as one of the Vietnamese people."
In the intensive psychological interviews conducted by Hubbard, Garwood revealed that his decision to "go over to the Vietnamese" was made to survive.
"When you are in a cage where you can't stand up or sit down and you are being led through villages where the North Vietnamese are poking sticks at your vital parts and accusing you of being a murderer, you quickly realize your survival chances aren't very good," Garwood explained.
"So what I decided to do was to listen until I could pick up a few basic words in Vietnamese, so I could ask for a drink of water, or say thank you for some kindness done to me," he said. "I soon realized that nobody was going to come to save me, that I was abandoned, and that to survive I had to start speaking Vietnamese, adapting, otherwise my chances as an enemy captive were pretty dim at best."
Hubbard produced three major conclusions based on taped interviews and a psychiatric evaluation: 1) Garwood, properly understood, was a survivor, not an enemy collaborator; 2) rigid U.S. military codes regarding POW conduct needed to be modified to take into consideration that all human beings have a breaking point, including U.S. soldiers captured in combat; and 3) dozens and very possibly hundreds of other American POWs abandoned in Southeast Asia had survived, as had Garwood, by assimilating into Vietnamese society after realizing there was little chance they would ever see the United States again.
'Keeping the truth buried'
Schanberg severely criticizes McCain for introducing legislation that became law in 1991 that was "so crushing to transparency," it "actually spells out for the Pentagon and other agencies several rationales, scenarios and justifications for not releasing any information at all – even about prisoners discovered alive in captivity."
The passage of the legislation was a prelude to the creation of the Senate Select Committee on POW/MIA Affairs in 1991 in which, Schanberg charges, "Kerry and McCain ultimately worked to bury evidence."
Schanberg points to the testimony of Richard V. Allen, former national security adviser to President Reagan, before the Senate Select Committee on POW/MIA Affairs as providing the explanation for why McCain, Kerry and U.S. presidents since Richard Nixon have been motivated to keep hidden from the American public evidence about the number of POWs that were left behind in Southeast Asia at the end of the Vietnam War.
In closed-door testimony before the Senate Select Committee, Allen described an offer from Vietnam to the Reagan administration, transmitted through a third country, "to exchange live POWs for $4.5 billion."
Although Allen later recanted that testimony, Schanberg noted the Senate Select Committee staff was in revolt when, led by Kerry and McCain, it refused to release a finding that U.S. intelligence reports marked "credible" reported POW sightings in Vietnam through 1989, leading to the conclusion the committee refused to report: "There can be no doubt that POWs were alive … as late as 1989."
Schanberg observed that Allen's initial testimony had the ring of truth, because when the French were defeated at Dien Bien Phu in 1954 and withdrew their troops from Vietnam, France for years afterward paid ransoms for prisoners to bring them back home.
Finally, Schanberg cited a theme regarding McCain's "war hero status" that has been echoed again in the current controversy with Trump.
"Washington said no prisoners were left behind, and Hanoi swore it had returned all of them," Schanberg wrote in conclusion. "How could either side later admit it had lied?
"Time went by and as neither side budged, telling the truth became even more difficult and remote," he continued. "The public would realize that Washington knew of the abandoned men all along. The truth, after men had been languishing in foul prison cells, could get people impeached or thrown in jail.
"Which brings us to today, when the Republican candidate for President is the contemporaneous politician most responsible for keeping the truth about this matter hidden," Schanberg observed in 2008. "Yet he says he's the right man to be the Commander-in-Chief, and his credibility in making this claim is largely based on his image as a POW hero."
Expressing his desire to question candidate McCain on the issue, Schanberg closed with the following argument.
"On page 468 of the 1,221-page [Senate Select Committee] report, McCain parsed his POW position oddly: 'We found no compelling evidence to prove that Americans are alive in captivity today. There is some evidence—though no proof—to suggest only the possibility that a few Americans may have been kept behind after the end of America's military involvement in Vietnam,'" Schanberg wrote.
"Evidence though no proof," Schanberg reiterated for effect. "Clearly, no one could meet McCain's standard of proof as long as he is leading a government crusade to keep the truth buried."