"I felt like a fallen eagle, captured and caged."
Jim Mulligan suffered seven years in North Vietnam as a prisoner of war. He was tortured and starved, locked in leg stocks and kept in solitary confinement for 42 desperate months. From March 20, 1966, when his Skyhawk was shot down during a Sunday morning bombing run, until Feb. 12, 1973, when the Navy pilot was finally freed, he lived in a suburb of hell.
Mulligan expected hatred from the people whose land he had bombed. What surprised him was coming home.
"I came back to a drug culture, a permissive society," said Mulligan, now 55 and living in Virginia Beach. "I felt the country was on the verge of anarchy."
The culture shock hit closer to Mulligan's home than hot pants on the streets and X-rated movies at the neighborhood theater. His wife, a thoroughly domestic Navy spouse when he left, had become an outspoken representative of POW wives, and had burned bureaucratic ears from the Pentagon to the White House during the latter years of the war.
His six sons had grown shoulder-length hair and social attitudes to match. Even the U.S. Navy had so relaxed dress and hair codes that sailors looked to Mulligan like Barbary Coast pirates.
"I came back to a completely new world," said Mulligan, a blue-eyed, New England Irishman who would look at home tending any corner bar. "I couldn't accept my kids and they couldn't accept me. I had a hard time accepting a lot of things."
Jim Mulligan has almost adjusted. After eight years, some hand-to-hand fighting with his sons and more than a few cold-sweat nightmares, Mulligan said emotional traumas only "occasionally crop up" now. He admires the fight his wife, Louise, waged on the home front. He and his sons have gradually worked out an affectionate peace.
Now the family is busy selling Mulligan's just-published autobiography about Vietnam -- one hard-cover copy at a time.
"Hanoi Commitment" was written by Mulligan, designed by his wife and self-published at a sacrifice. It begins with Mulligan's capture and ends with his release. The book is rich with religious and patriotic conservatism. It is also seven years late hitting the market.
Mulligan concedes his timing is off. Captivity is yesterday's story. Agent Orange and the Veterans Administration are making headlines now. But Mulligan insists there are lessons still to be learned from Vietnam, an episode Americans seem eager to forget. And POWs, he believes, have the only voices the public will still listen to.
"I found out that the important thing is doing what you know to be right, even if nobody sees you, nobody knows you did it," said Mulligan, who retired from the Navy in 1975 after a 31-year career. "I lost every battle over there. But I won the war."
That is Mulligan's simple message, the theme of his book -- trust in God, honor your country and stay true to a code of your own. It is not a revolutionary or profound prescription.
"I'm a military man, not a professional writer," said Mulligan, whose tale is extraordinary because he is in many ways ordinary himself.
"They put three sets of irons on my legs and made me kneel. Then they roped my wrists and arms behind my back, pulling them so tight I thought my chest would burst and my arms would fall off . . . they beat me about the head and body; dragged me about the room by my ears and hair . . . . I pleaded pitifully for mercy but to no avail."
Mulligan lost battles to his captors every week. Ropes soaked in gasoline and tightened into bloody tourniquets around his wrists taught him to bow. More elaborate torture coerced him and other POWs in camps nicknamed Hilton, Alcatraz and the Stardust to sign phony war crime confessions. But no concession was ever made without a fight, said Mulligan. For seven years, he would do no tricks until beaten. His resolve has won him respect from unexpected quarters.
"Jim Mulligan and I probably wouldn't agree on any political issue in the world, but the thing I like about the guy . . . he is a real hard-nose," said Seymour Hersh, a former New York Times reporter who won the Pulitzer Prize for his stories on the My Lai Massacre.
Hersh befriended Louise Mulligan during the years she was commuting from Virginia Beach to Washington, urging government officials to pressure Hanoi into improving its treatment of POWs. Hersh visited the family soon after Mulligan was released with more than 700 other POWs in 1973.
"He came back and couldn't stand the fact that his kids had long hair," said Hersh. "He just couldn't relate."
Mulligan returned home with discipline on his mind. There was too much hair, too much horsing around at meals and not enough respect for the natural order of things, in particular his place as head of the house. Some of the older boys had to be convinced.
"I had them down on the floor three times before they realized a man was back in the house," says Mulligan, flanked by sons Neal, 20, and Terrance, 28, both grinning ruefully. "I must have seemed like a Neanderthal to them."
Louise Mulligan, whose blue eyes are a shade darker than her husband's and whose temperament is considerably more calm, says she adjusted to her husband's homecoming rapidly. After seven years as a mother of six sons and a national advocate for hundreds of POWs at the same time, she was relieved to surrender some responsibility. The boys surrendered less willingly.
"I met my father when he came home," says Neal, who was 4 years old when his father went to war. "It was like having a stepfather move into your house."
Because food had been so scarce for so long, Jim Mulligan reacted to leftovers like a missionary faced with wayward souls. "I could not stand the fact that anyone would leave any food on the plate. I couldn't understand how they could take food so lightly," said Mulligan, who used to dream of steak, then wake up chewing on his bleeding tongue. He still finishes his family's uneaten dinners.
Louise Mulligan began preparing for her husband's return when she learned he had been shot down. She stockpiled magazines and newspapers religiously until the stacks grew taller than some of her children.
"It was the biggest firetrap you ever saw," she says. "After four years I looked around, said, 'This is dumb,' and chucked the whole thing out."
About the same time she was scrapping her basement library, Louise Mulligan was shedding some of her natural reserve. For the first few years she stayed home, accepting the Pentagon's periodic notes urging patience. Finally, in desperation, she and an East Coast group of POW wives she had organized decided to act.
"We were told that if we spoke out it might possibly hurt them," remembered Mrs. Mulligan. "But after years of absolutely nothing happening and the war going on and on with no end in sight, we had to do something."
A letter was drafted by the wives calling on the Defense Department to put international pressure on North Vietnam. Mrs. Mulligan delivered it in person to the Pentagon. Then she returned to Virginia Beach and began giving interviews to local media. Within a few months, a national organization had been formed and briefing sheets were sent to all the wives of POWs explaining how to hold press conferences.
"She had the good sense to realize we were a lost cause," says Jim Mulligan, who credits the international publicity generated in part by his wife in 1969 for saving his life.
"Up until that time the North Vietnamese didn't really believe that a country as big as the U.S. cared that much about an insignificant number of prisoners," said Mulligan. "If it were not for the efforts of Louise and the other wives, I doubt I . . . would have survived another six months."
Mulligan is still bitter about the treatment given many returning Vietnam vets, particularly draftees who "were slammed into that thing, got their asses shot off all over the damn countryside and then were hooted out of their own hometowns."
But he has no complaints about the reception he and his fellow POWs received upon their release. Parades were held in their honor, their every word was reported and military doctors were eager to minister to their physical and psychological complaints.
"The whole country pulled together around the POWs," says Mulligan, who is now, by his own description, overweight and happy. "We were the only good thing to come out of that damn war."