TRIBUTE TO ALAN BRUDNO
Vietnam Women’s Memorial, Washington, DC, May 30, 2005
One year ago today, 10 names were added to the Vietnam Memorial. One was that of my brother, Captain Alan Brudno, United States Air Force, a former POW held by the North Vietnamese for 7.5 years. He survived only 4 months after he was freed. No exceptions were asked for him and none were granted, as he met the criteria for adding his name to the Wall. He was mortally wounded in combat with the enemy, and died as a result of those wounds. No one saw him bleed. Suddenly, he was gone. Today, it is clear that much can be learned from his life and his death. That is why I am here.

My brother Alan grew up in Quincy, Massachusetts, graduated from public high school in 1958 and went on to MIT to pursue his dream of being an astronaut. He was one of three sons of a family doctor who had hoped that one of us would follow him into medicine. Instead, two of us volunteered to serve in the military, at a time when service was still a noble calling. After completing his flight training in jet fighters, Alan set his sights on becoming a test pilot, then the path to the astronaut program. No one doubted that he would achieve his goal. He soon qualified as an F-4 Phantom pilot and joined the 68th Tactical Fighter Squadron.

Only a few months after getting married, he was deployed to Thailand where he was immediately sent on combat missions over North Vietnam. He went because his country asked him to go, just as he would have against Hitler or Saddam Hussein. On October 18, 1965 his life and ours changed forever as he was shot down and captured. He was to become one of the longest held POWs in American history.

32 years ago, our POW’s came home from Hanoi. They looked better than anyone could have imagined after what they had endured. Their euphoria, however, masked terrible wounds deep inside for some. Only 4 months later, Captain Brudno committed suicide; he was the very first released POW to die. It made national news. Everyone was shocked. How could anyone give up just when he had finally won his freedom? As one military psychiatrist explained it to me many years later, he just used up everything he had over those long years in captivity. There was no strength left with which to survive.

This young American flyer had plenty to be proud of. The POWs became the first heroes of that unpopular war. Alan was awarded the Silver Star, two Purple Hearts, the DFC and many other medals. He took the worst the North Vietnamese could dish out. His fellow prisoners told me that he was hard-core, tough, often mocking his captors. He used his few letters home to help his cellmates. In one letter, Alan wrote of his problem with "fags on the skin." Fags, of course, are cigarettes to the Brits. This was one of the first confirmations that our POWs were being tortured.

Some years after the war ended, a former POW, Navy LTJG Dave Wheat, told me that Al had saved his life. For years, Dave was one of a number of POWs who were not allowed to write anything to their families. His family endured years of not knowing whether he was even alive. In a letter to his wife, Alan used some of his precious few lines to ask, "Remember when we couldn’t find the Rambler? We finally found it out in the wheat field and it was in good condition." Dave Wheat owned a Rambler convertible. Because of this, our government told the North Vietnamese that they knew that they had Dave and would have to produce him when the war ended.

The treatment at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, criticized so widely today, was mild compared to what Alan and others had to endure over those 7-1/2 years. Even though the North Vietnamese were a signatory to the Geneva Conventions, their use of extreme torture is well-documented. They would tie his arms behind his back and truss them so tight with ropes that his shoulder blades touched. Then they would hang him from the ceiling by his arms until his shoulders dislocated and he had had to give in. The pain is impossible for us to imagine, yet he remained determined to return with honor.

We have few written words of his captivity – he did not want to talk about it much. He speaks to us now through a poem that he brought out of Hanoi in his mind that many of his cellmates still talk about. It was 1,000 lines long and took him over 40 minutes to recite from memory:

Being chained to a spot
– being tied in a knot –
So bent, so crushed, so twisted…
In such terrible pain that could drive one insane
Few mortals could long have resisted.

Against horrors so chilling,
the spirit was willing,
But the flesh was too weak to withstand.
Was it really a sin
for a man to give in?
Could I better resist each demand?

Those "civilized" fools
broke all human rules –
So sadistic, so cruel, so brutal,
In those darkest of hours,
when a proud soldier cowers,
Those tortures made living seem futile.

With naïve expectations
they had hoped that my nation’s
Ideals I’d betray with concessions.
I retorted, of course
– they resorted to force –
Only tortures could gain those confessions.

Alan resisted whenever he could. When forced to read the propaganda news over the camp PA system, he would use a singsong voice and butcher the names of North Vietnam’s leaders to raise the morale of his cellmates. Punishment surely followed.

At Christmas in 1967, he was forced to talk with a French reporter who was determined to make the treatment of our POWs seem humane. I got a transcript of the broadcast on Radio Hanoi from our intelligence people. In it, Alan had said, "they gave us a big turkey dinner; it was a BFD, that is Big Fine Dinner in Brudno talk." Ecstatic that we had confirmed that he was alive, I called my mother to tell her the good news. I told her that it showed that Alan still had his sense of humor. I read the passage to her. She said, "there is no such thing as Brudno talk." I know, I said, BFD is really funny. She said she didn’t understand. So I told her that I would tell her why, but that I would have to use the F word. I told her that most of us in the military knew what BFD meant "big f—g deal." She paused, and then said, "Oh. That is terrible. I told all of you boys to never use that word." I guess once a mom, always a mom.

Despite all that he had to endure, Alan kept his faith in his country and his family. He won the respect of his fellow POWs. Some years ago, I told a former POW that sometimes I think it would have been better for Alan and his family if he had just been blown out of the sky back in 1965. To have survived so much for so long and then to have him slip through our fingers seemed to be so cruel. The other POW looked at me and said, "but then WE wouldn’t have had him." Then, I understood that he meant a lot to others while he was a captive.

Many have forgotten that our POWs were not always considered heroes. For many years during that terrible war the families of our POWs could not get people to speak out about the torture. Because of the toxic politics of the war, few would even protest the North Vietnamese’ unwillingness to let our POWs write to their families. Of the almost 300 letters we sent Alan, he only got 8 in 7-1/2 years. We got only 20 from him. What hurt the most, however, was hearing fellow Americans – my countrymen – dismiss our pleas because, as one put it, "your brother had a choice; he could have gone to Canada."

Finally, after the American people demanded better treatment, conditions improved. When he returned, Alan looked great and there seemed to be so much life ahead for him. But depression had already taken hold and few of us were able to understand, much less help him cope with it. The military, despite years of study and preparation, let the POWs go, as they were reluctant to impose psychological treatment. They failed to understand that these guys were jet pilots. They thought themselves to be invincible. Few would ever raise their hands and ask for help, fearing that doing so would surely end their careers. As one expert told me, "this was not psychiatry’s finest hour."

After Alan died, they all got it. Many other POWs revealed their demons and treatment was extended without the career-ending consequences that Alan feared. Programs are in place today for POWs and their families that will continue for the rest of their lives. One of Alan’s legacies is that other lives were saved. And, perhaps, the extensive programs that exist today for our men and women fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan resulted from a better understanding of the psychological wounds of combat.

While Alan, in the end, sought no acclaim or attention for himself, he has left much behind for others. He won the respect of his fellow POWs, sounded the call for help that has saved the lives of others, and demonstrated a love for his country and his family that his tormentors could not extinguish.

My family was very grateful last Memorial Day when we were able to win a few inches of space on the Wall for my brother’s name. I hope that those whose names are next to his are proud to stand with him for eternity. For a while, however, I wondered why Alan’s story attracted so much attention so many years after his death. I now understand. The war is not over for many who served in Vietnam; not just POWs. Unlike any war before Vietnam and none since, this one offered no glory to those sent in harm’s way.

Alan’s generation, our generation, never got to become the "greatest generation." No less brave than those who landed at Normandy, our men were asked to risk their lives for their country and endure the horrors of war, but were denied the thanks and respect of a grateful nation. Today, this country truly understands. I am happy that military service is again a noble calling. But for those of us affected by Vietnam directly or indirectly, the pain will never go away.

So, today, Memorial Day, as we recognize the service of all of this nation’s brothers, fathers, sons, sisters and daughters, we must keep in mind the debt still owed to so many. We must never, ever blame the war on the warriors again. More than 30 years after his death, this country finally welcomed home my brother. It is time for this country to welcome home all you good and honorable soldiers. We must all continue the effort to make sure that all Vietnam veterans will finally know that all Americans – particularly those opposed to that war – appreciate their service and salute them, as they do so freely our servicemen today.

Robert J. Brudno