Captain Edward Alan Brudno was an extraordinary man. A graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, he became an Air Force fighter pilot. He was a candidate for a NASA astronaut slot, but before that assignment could come through Brudno shipped off to Vietnam to perform the primary mission of the U.S. Air Force: to fly and to fight. Brudno’s F-4 was shot down in 1965, and he spent more than seven years in North Vietnamese prison camps. About four months after he returned home in 1973, he committed suicide. For Brudno’s family, and at least one man who was a POW with him in North Vietnam, his death is one of the wounds of Vietnam that has not yet healed.
If you haven’t visited the Vietnam Veterans Memorial on the Mall in Washington, you should. Its stark black granite has etched in it the names of 58,235 Americans who were killed in action or were missing in action and never accounted for. It is one of the two most powerful and solemn monuments in Washington. Only the Marine Corps Memorial is its equal.
None of the names on the Vietnam Memorial are those who died from Agent Orange-induced cancers, from post-traumatic stress syndrome or — like Brudno — by their own hand. Today, Brudno is the focus of one of the quietest and most serious fights in Washington: Should Al Brudno’s name be etched into the black granite of the Vietnam Wall?
I SPOKE TO DOUG CLOWER about a week ago. Clower — a Navy F-4 pilot — was shot down on 19 November 1967. He met Brudno at the Son Tay POW camp: the one which was raided in an unsuccessful attempt to rescue the POWs. Clower, Brudno, and the others were moved to the Hao Lo Prison in Hanoi — the “Hanoi Hilton” — before the would-be rescuers arrived.
Clower told me he wasn’t sure about adding Brudno’s name to the Wall. He said that long before the POWs were repatriated in 1973, Clower and the other senior officers knew Brudno was suicidal. He said, “I think we let Al down. We watched him in the prisons and kept him from [committing suicide]. And then when we get home and we debriefed to that effect, we didn’t do something about it.” Clower checked the records: he personally told his stateside debriefers that Brudno was suicidal. And yet Brudno, like so many others returning from Vietnam, didn’t get the attention and care he needed and deserved. In our conversation, I couldn’t help hearing the pain Clower still feels from Brudno’s death. Though he clearly should not, he feels he personally let Brudno down. He didn’t. America did.
Sen. John McCain — another veteran of the Hanoi Hilton — and Brudno’s family want his name added to the Wall, but many Vietnam Veterans, even some of the other former POWs, are very much opposed to it. Jan Scruggs, head of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund — himself gravely wounded in Vietnam — sent me an e-mail from Hanoi last Thursday. Scruggs opposes adding Brudno’s name.
Scruggs’s e-mail said, in part, “…post war suicides do not get engraved on war memorials anywhere in the world. Senator McCain and some former POWs believe this case is so unique that the name must be engraved…Today in Washington construction is ongoing for a plaque at The Wall — recognizing all who died after the war and due to the war, like Brudno. It will be dedicated in April.”
He added, “Our Board, our advisors and others would prefer that DOD would decide that the Plaque truly honors them all. People like General McCaffrey, Admiral Worthington and POWs who were with Brudno agree with us that this is a bad precedent. This is why DOD has in the past rejected the Brudno claim…We regret the controversy. I personally apologize to the family for any emotional stress caused when the issue quite inevitably became public.”
ANOTHER FORMER POW I’VE heard from — former Navy pilot Jack Ensch — agrees with Scruggs. “I’m saddened to hear about anyone who survived the hell of the Vietnam POW camps and returned to commit suicide.…If a POW was driven to suicide while in prison camp due to depression and harsh treatment, then I’d say that qualified as a combat death. But not after we returned…I don’t think the purpose of the Wall is to start memorializing everyone who dies who might have served in Vietnam. Where does it stop?” Scruggs makes a similar point. There are thousands — perhaps tens of thousands — of Vietnam veterans who have died of disease or suicide since they came home. If Brudno — whose death may have resulted from our neglect — is added to the Wall, how many others should be as well?
It’s impossible not to sympathize with Brudno’s family. His memory is precious to them, and his service should be honored. But Ensch has the better argument. The Wall memorializes those lost in combat. The 58,235 names on it are those who died or disappeared during the fight, or as a result of wounds suffered in it. The brutality the POWs suffered at the hands of the North Vietnamese was enough to wound them all. But not to compel us to add the names of those, like Brudno, who later killed themselves.
There’s a better answer to this fight. There should be a national memorial to the POWs — all of them — to make us remember their bravery in conditions unlike anything those of us who weren’t with them can ever understand. Don’t put Al Brudno on the Wall. But there is plenty of room in Washington for a POW memorial to honor him and all the others who were brutalized in the camps.
IT’S NOW SUNDAY MORNING, and as I was about to send this to Wlady, I received word that Jan Scruggs and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund are withdrawing their objections to adding Brudno’s name to the Wall. Edward Alan Brudno’s name will soon be etched in the black granite of the Wall. But what then? The Law of Unintended Consequences will govern us.
This decision reaches into the home of every other Vietnam veteran who died because of the war, and not in it. Each of those families will have to relive the war and the agony of losing a son or a father three decades ago to decide if they should ask that their soldier’s name be added to the Wall. The decision has been made, but not carried out. It can be reversed. Honor Captain Brudno, honor all the POWs. But spare those families this revival of their grief.
TAS Contributing editor Jed Babbin was a deputy undersecretary of defense in the first Bush administration, and now often appears as a talking warhead on radio and television.