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Painful Echoes Of My Father's Ordeal

By Janet Schmidt Zupan
Sunday, March 20, 2005; Page B07

I recently found a letter written by my mother just after my dad left for his final tour in Vietnam. "It's been hectic," she began. "Norm's afraid he won't get things done. He tried to fix up the whole house and the corral before he left. I wanted him to forget it but he had to keep working. . . . He's had a severe headache which has him worried. . . . It broke my heart to see him climb into that airplane."

I remember that summer -- July, Mojave Desert, my sisters and I complaining as we shoveled horse manure into a creaky wheelbarrow, my dad tamping creosote posts plumb in an afternoon wind. I remember touching his shoulder where he knelt to set a tile in his beautiful floor, trowel in hand, the musty odor of concrete and Spanish brick in the air. I recall us all sitting around the table, Dad blowing out the candles of his 40th birthday cake, and the deep silence beyond the tear of wrapping paper and clipped ribbons. I was 11. On the tarmac of George Air Force Base, I breathed in the smell of his flight suit when he hugged me for the last time.


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On Sept. 1, 1966, his F-104 was hit by flak during a mission, and the plane went down. My dad bailed out, drifting toward his last 364 living days, days that separated him so utterly from his life as a son, husband, father and career test pilot. In his final months he was deemed a "war criminal," beyond our desperate love and worry, beyond the protection of the country he served, and excluded from the regard for human safety, dignity and life inherent in the articles of the Geneva Convention.

In an audiotape in 1974, Cmdr. Robert Shumaker shared recollections of my dad. They were in a nine-foot-square cell with two other POWs in the Little Vegas section of the Hanoi Hilton in the summer of 1967. It was a harrowing period for the prisoners, in the wake of a communications purge. Shumaker described an incident on Aug. 21: "After Norm had finished washing he was peeking out [a] crack and trying to get a look at some of the other prisoners. Wouldn't you know it, a guard caught him." For this offense, my dad's legs were locked in stocks attached to his bed. Ten days passed before guards released him from this confinement and took him away for interrogation. He was never seen again. Shumaker concluded that "[Norm] was subjected to torture and succumbed in the process." Other prisoners, in cells down the hall from the interrogation room, reported hearing the "sounds of torture . . . a loud scuffle and then silence." My father's remains were disinterred from the Ba Huyen Cemetery in Hanoi in 1974 and returned to us.

These days, the unspeakable aspects of my father's death have reared back into focus through the most shocking of sources: Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo Bay and Afghanistan. How many of us trusted in unwavering U.S. adherence to the principles of the Geneva Convention? We committed to the accord, in good part, as a way of securing the protection of our own soldiers. Yet, recent, mounting evidence reveals that the United States has been engaging in abhorrent interrogation methods sanctioned from the executive branch down.

Someone tell me, please, what marks the difference between the fatal techniques used against my father, Col. Norman Schmidt -- labeled "war criminal" -- and those used on "enemy combatant" Manadel Jamadi, whose death in custody in Baghdad has been classified as a homicide?

What makes one instance an internationally recognized, heinous crime and the other an increasingly condoned practice, something we're supposed to believe is unfortunate but necessary? I cannot find the answer.

But I know that we owe it to our soldiers to treat prisoners of war and conflict humanely, no matter the circumstances that led to their incarceration, no matter the label they are given. Our national hesitation and then silence, our lack of outcry for an independent, thorough investigation into illegal detentions and torture, leave me grieving once again, deeper now for what seems the futility and waste in my father's honorable service and ultimate sacrifice in the name of the highest ideals of freedom and decency.

The writer is a college instructor in Montana.


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