Tuesday, November 08, 2011

The things we carry: A POW bracelet, a Medal of Honor recipient, and how the two came together

 In 1998, I started writing a monthly business ethics column for the Sunday New York Times, called “The Right Thing.” In what became a bit of a ritual…well, more of a panic, really…I spent part of each month scouring for ideas for the column. I talked to regular sources, kept an eye out and an ear open for egregious examples of corporate malfeasance, and pored through a collection of newspaper and magazine clips I’d collected in a big pile in my office that might yield some good premise for a column.

In late 2003, I was reading through an article I’d saved from The New York Times about some of the cases that the Supreme Court had declined to hear. One of them struck my eye in particular. It was a case brought on behalf of veterans of World War II and the Korean War who had been promised lifetime medical benefits for themselves and their families by overzealous recruiters in an effort to get them to serve in the military for at least 20 years. The United States Court of Appeals had ruled that these claims were invalid since the recruiters didn’t have the authority to offer them.

It struck me as a bum deal that these veterans were being cheated out of medical benefits because they had been misled and that the government had decided not to step up to the plate and honor the promises made by these recruiters… Great fodder for a column, I thought, looking at how our ethical obligations often go beyond what the letter of the law requires us to do.

But what really caught my eye was the name of the guy who was leading the case – a veteran from Ft. Walton Beach, Florida, named George E. Day. … God, that name – George E. Day – sounds familiar, I thought. … No, actually, it LOOKED familiar, as if I’d read it or seen it before.

So I started doing some digging online and found that George Day was at the time a lawyer in his seventies based in Florida who also was a heavily decorated war veteran who had served in World War II, Korea, and Vietnam. He had received the Congressional Medal of Honor, was one of the most highly decorated soldiers in United States military history…and, starting at the age of 42, he had been held as a prisoner of war in Vietnam for 67 months, where for a period of time his roommate had been John McCain.

And then it hit me. I looked up from the newspaper clipping over at the basket on my desk in which I keep pens and pencils…and there, hanging on the side of the basket was the nickel-plated POW bracelet I had worn 30 years ago when I was in high school. And there on the bracelet was the name: “Col. George Day” and the date on which he had been taken prisoner by the North Vietnamese – August 26, 1967.

All these years I’d assumed that Col. Day had never made it back since I never saw news of him during any of the prisoner releases that happened during the 1970s. But it turns out that not only did he make it back, he was a bonafide war hero who’d won the Medal of Honor.

For 30 years, I’ve been carrying around Col. Day’s bracelet with me, never knowing what happened to him. I had purchased the bracelet for $2.50 when I was a high school student in Boonton, New Jersey, in 1971. Thousands of people wore the bracelets during the waning days of the Vietnam War as a testament – regardless of their views of the War – that POWs should not be forgotten. As a high school student, I had been against the war, and I wore my bracelet through my freshman year in college and then kept it with me as I’ve moved over the years.

I’d been carrying Colonel Day’s bracelet around for 30 years and, now that I knew he was alive, I felt an obligation to go to Ft Walton Beach, FL and give it to him.

When I meet Col. Day for the first time, he was much smaller than I had imagined. This should have come as no surprise. I’d read his autobiography, called Return with Honor, where he’d written that he was only 5 feet 9. But he’d also written about one of the most harrowing imprisonment experiences I’d ever read – full of torture, defiance, resilience – that in my mind he’d taken on a larger than life stature.

During the 14 days that Col. Day had escaped his initial captors and was trying to find his way to South Vietnam, he was hallucinating, living off a couple of frogs and berries, bleeding from his nose, vomiting blood, nursing a broken right arm, and ultimately only giving in to being recaptured after he was shot in the arm and leg. … And, all of this while he was 42 years old.

When I set up the meeting, I hadn’t told the Colonel why I wanted to meet with him.

During the Vietnam War, I was a high school student who protested the war. I registered for the draft and got a lottery number in 1974, but, lucky for me, that was the year the draft was suspended. I ended up writing my phone number on my draft card to give to a girl I’d met at a college mixer.

While he was in the POW camp, Col. Day’s North Vietnamese captors would play speeches from anti-war protestors in the United States or from those – like actress Jane Fonda – who had visited Hanoi. In his book, he writes that this broadcasted propaganda “diluted the reasoning power of the public, confused the issue of how bad the Communists were, and supported the claims of the peaceniks and pro-Commie anti-war groups. During rational times in other wars,” Col. Day wrote, “such people would have been hanging from telephone poles. A pity these were irrational times.”

Knowing that I was in his office to give Col. Day the POW bracelet that I’d worn as a sign of protest against the war, I was a bit nervous that his hatred of the anti-war protestors will extend to me and that perhaps he thinks that I too, along with my high school buddies who wore similar bracelets with other names on them, should have been strung up as well.

When I finally mustered the courage to tell the Colonel why I’m really there, I reached into my left pants pocket, pulled out the bracelet, fumbled with it a bit, and then handed it to him.

It turns out that Colonel Day has received so many of these bracelets with his name on them that he’s donated the bulk of them to two different art projects, where they were fashioned into POW/MIA statues.

He still received several bracelets every month, but said that most of the bracelets he’s received over the past 30 years have obviously never been worn – they’re almost fresh out of the package, if not still in the original packaging. But not mine.

I didn’t know how the Colonel would respond when I gave him the bracelet. That he responded so warmly was partly due to the fact that he says he never knew that the bracelets were worn by anti-war protestors as a signal to end the war and bring home the POWs.

When Day returned to the States, he was told the bracelets were manufactured and sold by a Los Angeles radio host named Bob Dornan, who would later go on to become a Republican Congressman. And while Dornan did support and promote the wearing of the bracelets on his radio show, the nickel-plated POW bracelets were actually manufactured and sold by a group called VIVA, Voices in Vital America, a student-run organization out of Los Angeles that began selling them on November 11, 1970. The requests for the bracelets quickly reached 12,000 a day. Before it disbanded in 1976, VIVA had distributed nearly 5 million bracelets.

It’s somewhat uncomfortable to be the first person to explain to Col Day that these bracelets were the work of the VIVA students and that, regardless of their original intent, quickly the bracelets became another visceral symbol worn by those opposed to the war.

Col. Day is the most decorated soldier in the Air Force and is one of the country’s most highly decorated war heroes. He holds nearly 70 military decorations and awards. In addition to the Medal of Honor, he holds the Air Force Cross, the Distinguished Service Medal, the Silver Star, the Legion of Merit, the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Air Medal, the Bronze Star for Valor, and the Purple Heart.

He’s been honored at dozens of fighter pilot ceremonies, and was the first president of the NAM-POW association. The airport named in his honor in Sioux City, Iowa, features a 9-foot tall bronze statue of him wearing his fighter pilot’s uniform and his Medal of Honor around his neck.

After returning from Vietnam in 1973, the Colonel stayed in the military until 1977, when it became clear to him that he was not going to be offered the type of top military leadership position he felt he deserved. He’d been a lawyer since 1949, and was admitted to the Florida Bar in 1977, where he established a law practice in Ft. Walton Beach. He also became heavily involved in Republican politics.

Then came the lawsuit that made its way to the Supreme Court. For years, stories of overzealous military recruiters promising lifetime medical benefits to veterans with 20 years of service and their dependents had been circulating. Col. Day was outraged that World War II and Korean War veterans had not received these benefits and in 1996 sued the government for reimbursement of medical costs on behalf of two veterans. The government refused to take responsibility for these overzealous recruiters.

Colonel Day was a huge supporter of John McCain when he ran for the Republican presidential nomination in 2000 and, if you watched closely, you could see him on the stump for McCain when he ran again in 2008. McCain had made the restoration of medical benefits a major campaign promise in 2000. When McCain lost the nomination, Colonel Day dutifully shifted his allegiance to George Bush, who Day says had picked up McCain’s promise of restoring veteran’s benefits. He goes so far as to claim that he and his friends working the campaign personally delivered the election to Bush by giving him the narrow margin he needed with the absentee ballots of overseas servicemen based out of North Florida.

Soon after the election in 2000, Col. Day met President Bush at a gathering for Medal of Honor winners. He cornered the President directly about his promise of medical benefits for World War II and Korean War veterans. It was a disappointing meeting for the Colonel.

What’s been remarkable to me in this whole story is that here was this guy who has spent his life defining himself by his service to military and government – here was this guy who vociferously condemned acts of protest during wartime – and here he was suing his government.

The suit seeking reimbursement of medical expenses was brought on behalf of two veterans. The original suit was rejected in one court, then overturned on appeal, then rejected again on another appeal, before the Supreme Court refused to hear the case in June 2003.

Toward the end of our conversation, the Colonel tells me that the reason he thinks he was spared during three wars and 67 months of grueling captivity in North Vietnam was that God had a higher mission for him … and that that mission was to deliver North Florida to the Republicans and enable him to do the work he’s doing now to get veterans what’s due them.

I’m taken aback anytime someone declares they’re on a mission from God. But there’s something strikingly refreshing and ennobling about Col. Day’s declaration. For himself, he knows why he’s here. He has a clear sense of what his obligations are.

In a small and much less clearer sense, I’ve come to realize that I held on to Col Day’s bracelet all these years not for any profound reason other than the fact that I felt an obligation to carry it with me until I found out what happened to him.

Now that that obligation is fulfilled and I’ve given him the bracelet, I suppose I could have either felt a great burden lifted or a sense of emptiness at no longer carrying it with me. But the truth is, I felt neither. Years have gone by when I gave the bracelet or the man’s name on it little if any thought. If not for the serendipitous encounter with his name in a newspaper article, I never would likely have exerted the effort to find the Colonel.

But I do know that on seeing the Colonel wear the bracelet I’d given him on the final day we spoke and on hearing him ask me if it was okay with me if he and his wife, Doris, hung the bracelet on his Christmas tree, I felt a sense of joy and connection to this man I’d never known.

[This essay originally appeared on True/Slant on May 23, 2009.]
[Original research funded by This American Life.]

[Colonel Bud Day died on Saturday, July 27, 2013. He was 88 years old. His obituary in The New York Times appears here.



nicogirl said...

What a great story as I also had him on my POW bracelet and prayed for him all those years. I was aware of his return. The Chicago Tribune did an article at some point and my father gave me the good news.

I am SO jealous that you made contact with him as he was a hero larger than life to me as I learned of his career in and out of the military.

Saddened by his passing. Why is he NOT a household word? How do we preserve his legacy from here?

Jane Shevlot

Anonymous said...

Col.Day was the REAL Rambo. Stallone should be ashamed of himself and embrassed that he made those Rambo movies when he ran off to Switzerland to avoid the draft.

I wish our airport in Orange County was named after Col. Day. Our aiprot is named after John Wayne. Nice, but Wayne is not fit to stand in Bud Day's shadow.

RIP Sir. Thank you for your service.