“A member of the armed forces whose whereabouts following a combat mission are unknown and whose death cannot be established beyond reasonable doubt.” – Webster definition of missing in action
I met her at a social function; one of the numerous parties and celebrations that seem to be endemic to military life. One of the nurses at the dispensary that I worked in had a birthday. She was her younger sister.
Her sister had warned me ahead of time that this woman’s husband was MIA. At the time I wondered why she felt it necessary to provide me with such a personal bit of information. After I shook her hand and spoke to her for five minutes the reason became clear: she was a very appealing young woman, and I was a single, eligible Navy officer. Under ordinary circumstances we would have made a good match. As it was I decided that I still wanted to know more of her story. After we got done talking about the weather and how busy we both were we sat down and had a real conversation.
What kind of work do you do?
“I teach first grade. Try to make rowdy kids understand why it’s important for them to read.”
She smiled. It occurred to me that if I was a child in first grade, I would want to listen to her, and follow her advice. She was maybe five foot two; slender and elegant. She had short hair, brown eyes, and a very calm, soothing demeanor. And that smile. I would do anything to be rewarded with that smile.
My parents were both teachers. My mother taught college students how to teach children to read. She was a pioneer in introducing sounds; I think the term is something like ono..
“We use it all the time.”
We had spoken for less than five minutes and I felt that we already had a bond. It seemed safe to ask her more about her life.
Tell me more about yourself.
“Well, I’m sure that my sister has already told you that I’m a MIA wife.”
Another smile. I want to sit here and watch you smile the rest of the night, I say to myself. You don’t even have to talk.
Tell me what happened.
“My husband was flying a bombing mission over Hanoi four years ago. The rest of the squadron members tell me that his plane was blown up. Many of them saw it.”
That’s horrible. I’m sorry. She looked to the floor for a second. Then she looked at me; another smile.
“We’d only been married for six months. I knew we were at war and I’m familiar with the statistics.”
A number I had become acquainted with within weeks after I became a Navy doctor. A very high percentage of these bright, daring, courageous young men died. The planes they fly are designed to go very fast. The on board computers are extremely sophisticated. There’s not much time to react under the best of circumstances. Things can go wrong, and often do. When you add that down below there are a bunch of people who’re angry at you and want to kill you, many times they succeed.
You don’t look like most of the fighter pilot wives I’ve met. She smiled again.
“You mean the tall and strikingly beautiful Barbie dolls.”
“I don’t know how that got started, but there’s some truth to it. My husband was not like that, and you can tell modeling is certainly not in my future.” A moment of silence. “Let me tell you, they were all there for me. When the chaplain knocks on your door in the middle of the night you know what’s coming. Within minutes all the squadron wives were in my house. I literally had to do nothing for myself for weeks. I was fed, and driven places, and the house was cleaned; I think they would have showered and gone to the bathroom for me had they been able to.”
Like a family. I’ve noticed that. Lots of gatherings. Everybody seems to know everything about everybody else.
“There are pros and cons. I’ve received more than I’ll ever have a chance to give back.”
So what happens to an MIA wife? Something about her demeanor told me that I wasn’t probing.
“I know that my husband’s dead. All of his friends told me that there’s no way… The Navy cannot see it that way. I still get his pay, and I’m covered by all his benefits.”
That’s nice. I’m sure that you’d rather have him and not the benefits. And your life?
“I waited three years. I’ve dated a few times. There’s someone that I think will be special. He knows my situation; has from day one.”
“No; never again. He knows I want to wait until I get official notification from the Navy. It should be within a couple of years. He’s willing to wait.”
He’d be a fool not to.
“Thanks. You’re sweet.”
We spent the rest of the evening talking about children and families. I kept in touch with her sister for a few years. She received formal papers from the Navy that certified that her husband was dead. She married the man she spoke to me about a short time later. She’s doing well.
I was drafted into the Navy. I was a long-haired pacifist flower child; I was dragged kicking and screaming into a world of skilled fighter pilots and sophisticated killing machines. I thought that I would hate every minute of my enforced commitment. Instead I met hundreds of amazingly brave people like the young woman I’ve described. They turned my life around; their compelling life stories helped to make a man out of me.
I remain a pacifist. I understand better than most people that we need a strong military. It just seems to me that once a powerful weapon is developed there are people who have a vested interest in using it. They recruit innocent yet bright young men and women and train them, and they have no qualms about sending these people into battle and almost certain death in the name of family and country. The only benefit being that they can demonstrate that the technology works, and maybe that we can develop newer, more powerful, more expensive sequels. For what? Did we help Vietnam? Was it worth hundreds of thousands of lives lost on both sides? Did it justify putting this young woman’s life on hold for several years?
Do our leaders even ask themselves these questions? And shouldn’t we ask them if our leaders don’t?