Bobbe Lindland finally acknowledged last week that she was no longer a Navy wife, something she had been for 22 years as far as she was concerned.
She had been married to Cmdr. Donald Lindland 11 years when he was shot down over North Vietnam in September 1972. For 11 years more, she waited--in anger, confusion and bitterness--for word of his fate, fighting against U.S. officials for information they considered secret and she considered personal, fighting against her own emotions, unable to get on with life as if he were dead, unable to suspend life as if he were not.
On Thursday, Don Lindland's flag-draped coffin was unloaded along with seven others from the cargo bay of a jet in San Francisco after release by the Vietnamese last month. Since 1973, the Vietnamese have returned the remains of about 90 U.S. servicemen, though the Pentagon still lists 2,486 servicemen and civilians as unaccounted for in Southeast Asia. The Vietnamese say they have no more remains.
Once the remains of Lindland and the other seven were flown to Hawaii, they were identified by forensic experts at the U.S. Army Central Identification Laboratory near Honolulu. Reviewing their findings, based on medical and dental records and bone analysis, Bobbe Lindland is convinced that the remains are her husband's. But she is not relieved, because she wants to know how her husband died.
The Vietnamese simply handed the remains over to U.S. officials with no explanation. U.S. intelligence, as far as Lindland has been able to tell, has no explanation of why, when, or how Don Lindland died either.
"I've heard a lot of wives in my position over the last few years say how relieved they were at the return of remains, how that now they can get on with their lives, now they can begin to forget," said 45-year-old Bobbe Lindland. "I'm not one of those. Look, the North Vietnamese murdered Don and I'm never going to know what happened. Don was seen alive on the ground after he was shot down. I'm convinced that the remains are his, but in my mind that doesn't end it. I'm still mad. I'm still furious.
"I'm mad at the Vietnamese for what they did to him, what they did to me. I'm mad at the Jane Fondas who rallied against him. I'm mad at the fact that a military war was turned into a political ball game at the expense of our men. I'm mad that mighty Kissinger wrote off the POWs and MIAs at the Paris peace talks.
"I'm mad that Mr. Carter welcomed home the draft evaders and declared our POWs dead. I'm mad I couldn't do more within the system to get more attention to our POWs and MIAs, to make the government more responsive. Maybe we could have saved some more lives."
So Bobbe Lindland cannot be grateful for the chance to bury some part of her husband beneath a stone. She has his body, but she doesn't have the facts, and that's what she's been fighting for since Don's Grumman A6 Intruder was downed by two missles while on a bombing mission southwest of Haiphong, North Vietnam.
Three weeks after a teletyped message informed her that he had been shot down, she attended a convention of the American League of Families of American Prisoners and Missing in Southeast Asia. Soon she became an East Coast spokeswoman for the league, lecturing to local groups and chambers of commerce, being interviewed for television, challenging the government's power to withhold information about America's missing men.
Billboards were raised all over Norfolk. Paid for by the league, they carried a nine-foot picture of her husband and the message: "Hanoi, Where Is Don Lindland and the Rest of Our Men?"
In 1975, the Berkeley-educated journalism major took a job as assistant editor of Armed Forces Journal. She used her Washington press corps job to buttonhole officials, push for more action on POW and MIA issues, find out what had happened to Don.
Through it all, Bobbe Lindland never really knew officially what had become of her husband. Informal information she gathered indicated he was a POW. He had been seen on the ground, apparently uninjured, after successfully ejecting when his plane was hit by two surface-to-air missles. There had been North Vietnamese radio broadcasts, monitored by U.S. intelligence, lauding the capture of a pilot at the right time and place. A North Vietnamese soldier captured in the South reported having seen Lindland's plane go down and a pilot seeking to evade the militia.
"As far as I could learn, and believe me, it was difficult to get anything out of the government, Don was alive," she said. "Don was in a POW camp somewhere in the North."
The Lindlands had met on Wake Island in 1961. It was a time when the United States was flying diplomats, intelligence people and military advisers into South Vietnam at an ever-increasing pace, when what became a dirty, unpopular war was just a trouble spot.
A stewardess for World Airways, under contract with the government, she was flying 65,000 miles a month, regularly taking ground fire from the Viet Cong when flying into Tanson- nhut, dumping fuel over the Pacific, losing engines. A crisis was building, and she was living it before most Americans even knew what was happening.
She met Don Lindland on a diving board at a hotel on Wake. He, too, was flying C121s on Embassy Runs, as they were called. A young ensign with blond hair and an easy smile, he was a big man from Eugene, Ore., who looked like his father, a broad-faced Norwegian immigrant who worked for the railroad.
"He was an All-American looking man who could sell refrigerators to Eskimos," Bobbe Lindland said.
They were married six months later, and soon Don, an economics major at the University of Oregon, decided he would be a career Navy man. The Lindlands were transferred to Pensacola, Fla., where he instructed Navy fliers and then instructors of Navy fliers. By 1966, Don Lindland was accepted into the Navy's A6 program and was transferred here, where he was trained to fly attack bombers from the carrier Enterprise.
"Don and I were good friends," Bobbe Lindland said. "We were partners. He mowed the grass. I did the shrubs. He didn't make me wash his yucky flight suits. He threw them in the wash himself. He wasn't worried about his macho image. After all, he took that big aircraft up there and did amazing things with it. He knew he was macho."
Since her husband's disappearance, Lindland has ranged from activism to ambivalence, from the thick of the League of Families fight in Washington to escape to Hawaii as a hospital volunteer, to Pensacola to study Elizabethan history, to Orlando to do free-lance photography. Sometimes she wrote letters and spoke to groups and agitated. Sometimes she tried to live one day at a time. Always she tried to fit in while she waited for Don.
"I felt that for 11 years, no matter how my life was going, I was always living as my husband's representative. I would always consider him and what he would say. When I bought the house in Pensacola, I thought, 'Would he fit in if he came home? Would he like the location? Would he think it was a good deal?' In my mind, he wasn't here, but he wasn't gone either.
"Now I have an overwhelming emptiness because it's for sure he is never going to walk through the door. The hope is gone. The bitterness and hatred are not."