Ted Sampley, 62

Ted Sampley, 62: Vietnam Veteran Was an Outspoken Advocate for POWs

U.S. Park Police Maj. James McLaughlin talks to Ted Sampley and others selling POW/MIA items about an anticipated ban on T-shirt sales at the Mall.
U.S. Park Police Maj. James McLaughlin talks to Ted Sampley and others selling POW/MIA items about an anticipated ban on T-shirt sales at the Mall. (1997 Photo By Susan Biddle -- The Washington Post)
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By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 15, 2009

Ted Sampley, a Vietnam War veteran and former member of the Green Berets who was a persistent activist for American prisoners of war and missing servicemen, and who later led smear campaigns against presidential candidates, died May 12 at the VA Medical Center in Durham, N.C., of complications from heart surgery. He was 62.

Mr. Sampley, who had an uncanny talent for capturing public attention, was a founder of Rolling Thunder, the annual motorcycle caravan that raises money for POW/MIA causes. In 1994, he presented evidence that the Vietnam-era remains in the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington National Cemetery were not anonymous after all.

By painstakingly analyzing service records and maps, he concluded that the remains were those of a missing pilot, Air Force Lt. Michael Blassie, who was shot down in 1972. In 1998, U.S. military officials confirmed Blassie's identity through DNA analysis.

But Mr. Sampley often took his advocacy to extreme lengths and combined a malicious streak with a flair for outrageous publicity stunts. He shouted down a president during a speech, chained himself to the White House fence and once delivered bamboo cages, filled with hunger strikers, to the lawn of a presidential chief of staff. He also went to jail for assaulting an aide to Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.).

An equal-opportunity political offender, Mr. Sampley lodged dubious charges that attacked the patriotism of officials from both parties. In 2004, he formed an organization called Vietnam Veterans Against Kerry, to oppose the presidential campaign of Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.). He supported, but was not formally affiliated with, another anti-Kerry movement, the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth.

Mr. Sampley called Kerry "Hanoi John" and distributed through his Web site a photograph -- later shown to be faked -- of Kerry and Jane Fonda, the actress and antiwar activist who had visited Hanoi during the war. Last year, he used his Web site to denounce "Sen. Barack Hussein Obama Jr." and his father's Muslim heritage.

But Mr. Sampley reserved his most venomous attacks for McCain, a Navy pilot and fellow Vietnam veteran who spent five years as a prisoner of war. Mr. Sampley believed many missing soldiers and airmen were still alive and was upset that McCain did not champion an effort to bring them home. As a result, Mr. Sampley dug through McCain's record, using innuendo to make claims that ranged from far-fetched to scurrilous to slanderous.

In a 1992 article in his magazine, U.S. Veteran Dispatch, Mr. Sampley called McCain "the Manchurian candidate," suggesting he had been brainwashed by his captors and might have been a dupe or secret agent of the Soviet KGB. When McCain recommended that the United States establish diplomatic relations with Vietnam, Mr. Sampley accused him of abetting the enemy.

In typically provocative style, he delivered a stack of the accusatory articles to McCain's office on Capitol Hill. One of McCain's aides, Mark Salter, ordered Mr. Sampley out of the office. In a nearby stairwell, they got into a fistfight that was broken up by security guards.

"I worked him over pretty good," an unapologetic Mr. Sampley later said.

He served two days in jail and was ordered to keep away from McCain and his staff.

In 2004, McCain called Mr. Sampley "one of the most despicable people I have ever had the misfortune to encounter."

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