Eleven Letters Honor POW's Hidden Wound
Brother Sought Inclusion On Wall After Pilot Came Home and Killed Himself
By Monte Reel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 22, 2004; Page A01
The stonecutter peeled the tape from the Wall and wiped away the granite dust with a wet cloth.
Within that polished swath near the top of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, he revealed the newly engraved letters -- E Alan Brudno -- that restored permanence to a name that had begun to fade 31 years ago.
Edward Alan Brudno was captured by the North Vietnamese in 1965 and endured the next 7 1/2 years in prisoner of war camps. Dreams of a perfect homecoming allowed his mind to escape from the gray stone cells, but reality at home couldn't match his imagination. Things there had changed as much as he had.
One of the first things he did when released was to ask for a tape recorder. He wanted to clear his head of a poem he had been mentally constructing for years, an epic that took 45 minutes to recite:
It's so hard to express how that mental duress
Played a specially torturous role --
Like the termites that fed on the boards in my bed,
It was gnawing away at my soul. . . .
Four months after Brudno's homecoming, his in-laws found his body, fatal traces of phenobarbital in his stilled veins. He was the first of the 566 returned Vietnam POWs to die. It was national news.
This month, he became the first veteran who committed suicide after returning home to have his name engraved on the Wall. Some maintained that veterans who committed suicide did not belong on the memorial and might open the door to thousands of additions. To sort through the debate, Defense Department officials reopened Brudno's file.
They mined the memories of former POWs who lived closest to him during imprisonment. They consulted military doctors who dug out classified debriefings, medical records and psychological evaluations. They interviewed officials who met with him after his release, and military historians.
They decided that his psychological wounds were a direct result of his being in the camps, qualifying his name for the Wall. The Defense Department issued a statement differentiating Brudno's "unique circumstances" from those of thousands of other veterans who have committed suicide. His psychological records, anecdotal evidence from other POWs and the short period between his service and his death allowed them to draw a straight line between cause and effect.
Near the foot of the stonecutter's ladder, a reflection shimmered in the Wall's gloss.
It was Bob Brudno. While his older brother was held prisoner, Bob suffered secondhand wounds: the cumulative weight of daily uncertainty, thinking about the coercion and torture, the rancor of wartime politics. When Alan died, guilt and anger and helplessness built up.
Bob put his hand on the shoulder of a woman standing near him -- Alan's widow, Debby, who has her own set of wounds. The casual gesture would not have happened before the reopening of Alan's file. Their relationship, essentially dormant for three decades, had been another casualty of war, strained by the emotions that had haunted Bob since 1973.
He confronted them this year by spoiling what he believed was his brother's final wish. Alan Brudno had sought oblivion. But by persuading the government to engrave those 11 letters into the memorial, Bob Brudno gave him a lasting presence instead.
The four F-4 Phantoms cruised over the green peaks of the highlands, above sparse clouds that couldn't obscure the target: a bridge spanning a thin ribbon of water in the valley.
Air Force Maj. Tom Collins and his backseater, 1st Lt. Alan Brudno, watched two leading jets plunge toward the bridge and drop their unguided iron bombs -- an attempt to disrupt supplies along the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Years later, Collins recalled that he and Brudno watched the bombs fall wide. Then the view outside their window tilted 45 degrees as they took their dive.
They were an odd pair, thrust together at George Air Force Base in California. Brudno was Jewish, 25 years old, the son of a doctor from suburban Boston, a graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the proud owner of the first Beatles records. Collins was a country boy, a few years older, a swaggering fighter jock from Mississippi who liked to kick back and let his drawl carry him through a round or two at the bar.
What they did share was a pilot's stick-and-rudder sensibility. Weeks before they were deployed in the summer of 1965, they visited the test pilot school at Edwards Air Force Base and met a couple of heroes, Chuck Yeager and John Glenn. For Brudno, it was hallowed ground. When he recounted the trip for Debby, he was elated -- they had implied he could get into the space program.
He needed to log combat hours and then return to Edwards for flight tests. His planned entry into the space race seemed well-timed: When he was at MIT, a chimpanzee sat in the first U.S. vessel to orbit the Earth. By the time he was combat ready, stars were aligning: The Mercury astronauts were fixtures in Life magazine, President Lyndon B. Johnson seemed committed to the vision of a man on the moon and an American space probe was taking close-up pictures of Mars.
That's where things stood when Brudno and Collins went into the bombing dive -- their 35th mission in two months. Then something hit the back of the plane. The view blurred instantly.
"Get out! Get out!!" I heard Tom shout,
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