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 71/2 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,
As we made our dive for the ground.
We were out of control -- we started to roll.
The earth was spinning around . . .
They yanked their ejection fuses, and cannon shells exploded under their seats, rocketing them out to parachute toward tangled vegetation 1,000 feet below.
Collins's vertebrae compressed like an accordion when he hit ground. Villagers seized him and later led him blindfolded down a road, hobbling. "I just shouted, 'Al, you around here?' " Collins remembers. "And I heard him, a couple hundred yards behind me. He yelled, 'Yes!' Then they beat me up a little, and we kept going."
They were separated two days later. They were shuffled through different camps and didn't see each other again for 71/2 years.
Getting the Word
Bob Brudno was in his fraternity house at Tufts University when he heard the news.
Missing in action -- at least there was some hope. Then hope became a daily, then weekly, then monthly ordeal.
As the number of planes shot down more than tripled from 1965 to 1966, people knew pilots were being held prisoner. But U.S. officials instructed families to stay quiet, advising them that publicity might prompt punishment in the camps or make the POWs pawns in peace negotiations. So the Brudnos waited in silence, writing to Alan and waiting for responses that never came.
Then on Feb, 10, 1966 -- Bob's 21st birthday -- Debby got a letter confirming that Alan was alive.
"It's your birthday present," Debby remembers telling Bob.
More than a year later, they learned that Alan's wit had survived, too. Bob, then in the Navy, got a call from the Pentagon. Prisoners had been recorded reading forced statements on Radio Hanoi. They had been given a Christmas dinner, and the North Vietnamese wanted to publicize that. Bob heard his brother's recorded voice:
"It was a BFD," Alan said in a singsong voice, a thick strain of sarcasm imparted. "That's 'Big Fine Dinner' in Brudno talk."
The acronym told Bob it was definitely Alan. He told his mother that a "BFD" was a Brudno staple: The B stood for big, the D stood for deal, and the F -- that was a modifier his mother would never condone.
"Oh, that is terrible," Ruth Brudno said, Bob recalls. "I told you boys never to use that word."
A Bright Spot
When their blindfolds were removed, prison mates Alan Brudno and Navy Lt. Cmdr. Bill Tschudy found themselves handcuffed together on a hot July night in 1966 in downtown Hanoi, at the very front of a line of 52 POWs.
The North Vietnamese had threatened to try the captured pilots for the massacre of civilians. Now the prisoners were paraded in front of an angry public.
Guards with bayonets lined the prisoners' flanks as crowds pressed closer. Bottles, batteries and gobs of spit arched over the guards. Fists and feet connected. Finishing the two-mile gantlet, almost all the prisoners were bruised, many were bleeding and some had lost teeth.
Scattered reports appeared in the international media the next day. "The Hanoi March" prompted the first serious public discussions of POW treatment. From the United Nations to the Vatican, the treatment was denounced. The North Vietnamese rescinded threats of trials.
But the prisoners had no way of knowing. Brudno and Tschudy returned to Briarpatch, a camp about 35 miles west of Hanoi, to the brick huts and 10-by-7-foot pens with no electricity and a metal bucket for a latrine. Food was a scoop of rice and cabbage soup, twice a day, which dieticians later estimated provided 700 calories a day.
By August, prisoners recalled, their captors tied their wrists behind their backs, stretching their shoulders and pushing their heads forward for long spells, to coerce them to confess to crimes.
Against horrors so chilling, the spirit was willing
But the flesh was too weak to withstand.
Was it really a sin for a man to give in?
Could I better resist each demand?
Brudno told others he agreed to write his confession after handcuffs were ratcheted into both wrist bones. Like others, he struggled with depression. Two pilots, Phillip Butler and Robert Shumaker, later told military historians they tried to kill themselves in Briarpatch by beating their heads against walls.
Brudno built a reputation throughout the camps for outwitting his captors.
After a month alone in an underground pit for communications violations, Brudno continued the widespread practice of tapping on the walls in code: the letters of the alphabet corresponded to a certain number of taps. Air Force Maj. Wes Schierman remembers admiring Brudno's invention of a new way to communicate the code: He tied a sequence of knots in lengths of string torn from a blanket, then sneaked the strings to other prisoners.
Brudno also was adept at mocking his captors when forced to read news reports critical of the war over the radio. More than once, his ironic, singsong voice was broadcast through the camps. Prisoners chuckled when he incorporated a mild obscenity into Ho Chi Minh's name.
Marine Capt. Orson Swindle heard a Brudno broadcast from his cell in Hao Lo prison, the "Hanoi Hilton." Swindle remembers it as a bright spot in a dark day.
"I've got to meet this guy," he remembers saying to himself.
League of Families
By the late 1960s, wives of POWs began talking of their struggles, figuring that the policy of silence hadn't done much good. Debby Brudno kept a low profile, enrolling in a graduate program at Columbia University to help lend shape to what seemed like formless years ahead. She soured on the war for reasons more personal than political.
Bob Brudno completed his four years as a naval officer and threw himself into POW-MIA issues.
He grew impatient with protesters and politicians who called for the end of the war and used the POWs as a rationale. He saw it as hypocrisy: Why weren't they worried about human rights when the Hanoi March was in the papers?
He moved to Washington and was elected to the board of the new National League of Families of American Prisoners and Missing in Southeast Asia. The league organized letter-writing campaigns to urge Hanoi to comply with the Geneva Conventions.
As more families spoke out, they started receiving more letters from prisoners. The White House was pressured to show that POWs were a priority. On Nov. 18, 1970, President Richard Nixon signed off on a plan to invade a prison camp and rescue about 70 Americans.
The raid began under a quarter moon that hung over Haiphong Bay and cast a thin light over the countryside. It was early on Nov. 21, 1970, and William Guenon was piloting a C-130 at shakingly slow speeds toward Son Tay, leading a formation of six helicopters flying as fast as they could at its wings. The helicopters carried 56 Green Berets and Rangers. The C-130 was to light up the prison camp with flares before the 56 raiders freed the Son Tay prisoners and loaded them onto helicopters.
Guenon remembers scanning the list of the prisoners. His eye tripped over one of them: Brudno, a friend from flight school.
At 2:17 a.m., Guenon flipped on an internal green droplight to signal loadmasters to release parachute flares. The sky was aglow. The helicopters swooped inside the prison walls, spraying guard towers with 7.62mm guns. The raiders rushed out of the helicopters and swept through the prison.
They found empty cells.
The prisoners had been moved to another camp five months before.
After hearing of the failed raid, some prisoners were overjoyed that they hadn't been forgotten. But Brudno's bouts of depression deepened. He had always been angry at his captors, but now he boiled. Although conditions in the camps -- including food rations -- had improved after 1969, Brudno would go days at a time without speaking. Tschudy watched helplessly as Brudno often refused to eat the food he received, his body carved into harder angles by near starvation.
When his head cleared, he taught math and physics to others. The camp sometimes looked like a university: 96 percent of the prisoners in North Vietnam had gone to college and had sampled a wide range of courses among them. Navy Cmdr. Paul Gallanti tutored Brudno in French. Brudno picked the brains of literature majors and fixated on composing his poem. He mentally designed a dream house down to the last floor joist.
As my dream house progressed, I became more obsessed
With designs for your future with me.
For without you to share all those dreams with me there,
How meaningless living would be.
His depression bottomed out in 1972 at a camp called Dogpatch on shaving day. Guards visited the 20-man room with four double-edged razors and a bucket. The men lined up to shave beards first, then lined up again to shave body hair to prevent fungal infections. Brudno stole one of the blades.
Later, he approached Lt. Col. Elmo Baker, the senior officer in the room. "Mo, I need to talk to you," Baker remembers him saying.
He told Baker he planned to slit his wrist and bleed out by the latrine. So for the next several weeks, Baker stayed close to Brudno, slept next to him, tried to lift his spirits. Brudno seemed to relax. He returned to a detailed blueprint of what things would be like when he got home, Baker said. And he wrote home.
'No More Goodbyes'
The letters that Debby Brudno got and passed on to Bob included instructions: "Write legibly and only on the lines. Write only about health and family. Letters from family should also conform to this proforma."
The Brudnos suspected censorship, and it was sometimes difficult for them get a good read on Alan's health, mental and physical. One letter hinted at cigarette burns: "My old problem of fags has finally disappeared from my skin. You recall how I used to get as many as 3 in a single day?"
Some writing was practically incomprehensible -- apparent attempts to smuggle out information. Once he wrote that "after looking for a long time, we found the Rambler out in a wheat field" -- he had spotted a missing Navy lieutenant, David Wheat, who at home drove a Rambler.
Many letters suggested mood swings.
"I sure hope you have had much happiness at home," Debby read in 1969. "Only a very true love like ours will bring you ever greater happiness in future. Please pray for me. . . . "
Then, in 1972: "Like unlucky players at a game of chance, we may someday have to make the difficult decision to call it quits. It's just not fair to you, that I should ruin your entire life. . . . I'm not worth it, believe me. . . . Perhaps you should consider the possibility of remarrying."
Alan had been transferred to the Hanoi Hilton by the time release seemed imminent, and he envisioned their reunion. He and Debby would travel to Hawaii to a plush resort, then to San Francisco by luxury liner to meet Bob.
"I dream every day, my darling, of that magic moment when at last we will meet: There, at ebb tide, I'll find you standing at the water's edge -- your back to me. As I approach with pounding heart, I'll whisper your name, & you'll turn. . . . And til time should ever cease, for us there'll be no more goodbyes."
New prisoners told stories the long-timers could hardly believe. The counterculture, women's liberation, R-rated movies in mainstream theaters -- hard to imagine. But they would soon see for themselves. The Paris peace accords, formally signed Jan. 27, 1973, called for U.S withdrawal in Vietnam and release of the POWs.
Brudno got his hands on some paper, and he made his own ink by mixing water with cigarette ashes or the dye from diarrhea pills. Writing in tiny print and wasting no space on two full pages, he sketched everything he wanted to do when he got home. The sheets were the breathless chronicle of an overwhelmed mind.
He would get his poem bound in limited edition. He would shave twice a day, wear colorful underwear, take classes in speed reading, public speaking, dance and guitar. He would read old magazines, book reviews, the Bible, the Talmud, "The Power of Positive Thinking" and masterpieces of world literature. He would collect coins and stamps, buy only calf-length or over-the-calf socks, go sailing on the Charles River and paint an oil portrait of Deb. He would take ski lessons, learn origami, try ice hockey. He would avoid buying things -- especially small items -- based on their packaging. He would wear his hat without a tilt, and he would touch the brim when meeting a woman in the street. He would avoid Orlon. He would polish his newly learned French. He would look into seeing a psychiatrist.
Brudno spent his last evening at the Hanoi Hilton getting a haircut, a turkey dinner and a Czechoslovakian windbreaker with the first zipper he had seen in years.
One of those on his Feb. 12 flight was Roger Shields, the Pentagon's man in charge of "Operation Homecoming." Shields had heard about Alan from Bob and sought him out. He found him courteous, somewhat quiet, seemingly happy. Shields later concluded that he was probably the last person whom detainees would want to confess problems to: Any sign of instability, and the military wasn't likely to let them fly.
The prisoners were amazed at their greeting: thousands of people, thousands of flowers, thousands of damp eyes. Wives kissed their faces; children hugged their knees.
Reporters asked the prisoners whether they knew a man had walked on the moon.
Brudno had missed the space race, and a lot more.
The Digital Watch
Bob picked out the family's welcome home gift: a Pulsar watch, the first digital sold commercially and the kind of gadget he knew his brother would love.
Alan Brudno was all smiles, surrounded by family and onlookers when he arrived at Westover Air Force Base in Massachusetts.
"Words like 'unbelievable,' 'exciting' and 'unreal' vividly describe the fantastic excitement of being reborn," he told the crowd.
His smile faded quickly. He was despondent, quietly retreating within himself. Some wives had moved on to other relationships, but Debby was waiting to help him. It soon was clear, though, that their relationship could not match the fantasy that had sustained him.
She wasn't the 21-year-old he had fixed in his mind, but an independent woman who had struggled alone and bore her own scars. It was just one of the shocks that he took the blame for. He saw how his parents had aged and felt responsible. The guilt stretched to his memories of the camps: Maybe he could have resisted more; maybe he had not been a strong enough officer. His family couldn't understand how he could believe he let them down. The depression was back, but this time dreams of an idyllic return couldn't buoy him.
With no help coming from the government, Debby discovered that taking care of his depression was a 24-hour job. She loved him but figured they would have a lifetime to work it out. She needed some time for herself.
Bob arranged for Alan to visit him in Alexandria. The itinerary was designed to give his brother a lift. They watched "2001: A Space Odyssey" at the Uptown Theater in Washington. Bob arranged for an airline at Dulles International Airport to let Alan see a 747 and tour the cockpit. But nothing cheered him for very long.
On June 2, two days before many POWs attended a ticker-tape parade and a rally at the Cotton Bowl in Dallas, the Pentagon's top medical officer warned that initial evaluations suggested the returned prisoners were in "worse condition than everyone thought."
The same day, Bob Brudno got a package in the mail. It was the Pulsar watch. There was no note.
"I knew it wasn't good, and I set out to find him," Bob recounted, tears streaking his face. "I can't remember how I managed to find him, but I found him in a hotel in Boston, alone. And I was so scared. And he said, 'Don't worry, the watch was running fast, and I figured it would be best for you to take it back to where you got it. I was going to call you, but I guess it got there faster than I expected.'
"He fooled me. And [if I had realized], I know now what I would have done. I would have called somebody to get him. I would have called the police. I would have called the Air Force. I would have called somebody. But I didn't know what I know now. If he was suicidal, I didn't know -- I wasn't told. And people tell me, 'Well, had you done that, he still might have killed himself.' My response is, 'Thanks for the attempt, but it doesn't make me feel any better.' I had the chance to do something heroic. To save him after all the years. What could be more important to me after all those years?"
Alan was dead the next day. He left a two-line note, in the French he studied in prison. A detective translated it for the New York Times: "It said roughly, 'There is no reason for my existence . . . my life is valueless.' "
Bob Brudno was mingling with other guests at a reception at the Cosmos Club in Washington in 1997 when he spotted the longest-held prisoner in North Vietnam, Everett Alvarez Jr.
During the years after his brother's suicide, Brudno had distanced himself from POW issues. He bore grudges: against war protesters who he said degraded the POWs by suggesting they had survived for an ignoble cause; against Debby, who, he thought, failed to understand how essential believing in the war's value was to Alan; and against himself. But on this evening, he approached Alvarez, who recognized the Brudno name.
"I don't understand," Brudno recalls Alvarez saying. "He was one of us. He was tough."
At that moment, Brudno realized that his brother had essentially disappeared, reduced to a foggy memory. He got the idea that his brother's name should be put on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.
The next year, in 1998, he made a request -- as Debby had separately -- but Jan Scruggs, the president of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund, told him that he did not think Alan fit the requirements: Honorees must have died of injuries suffered in the war.
Late last year, Bob Brudno went to the Air Force, which ruled that Alan Brudno qualified. Scruggs protested. But Brudno had a cast of former POWs in his corner. Orson Swindle, a friend of Alan's in the prison camps, was a federal trade commissioner and made some calls. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) fired a letter to Scruggs calling his argument "an affront to the family, friends and comrades-in-arms." McCain said he also placed a call to the Defense Department panel that would make the final decision, saying he had talked to numerous POWs who had known Brudno well and who were convinced that his suicide had resulted from combat wounds.
Robert Hain, a doctor who studied Brudno's medical and psychological records, agreed. The government in 1973 did not appreciate the scope of the problems, he said.
Hain, who has worked with hundreds of POWs, told the Defense Department he believed that Brudno's death was a direct result of the physical and psychological wounds suffered in the camps. Records showed no indications of psychological problems before the imprisonment; his post-release evaluations were full of very clear signs.
Several on the panel said they came to the conclusion that Brudno had exhausted his coping skills in the camps just to make it home. When he got back, they said, he had nothing left.
Scruggs, his mind changed, stood near Bob and Debby Brudno as the stonecutter placed a piece of paper over the newly inscribed name and made pencil rubbings for Debby and Bob.
Both have lived for years in the Washington area. Although they are the closest surviving links to Alan -- whose parents have since died -- the two of them had never really talked. Then, after Debby learned of Bob's push to put the name on the Wall, they reconnected. In one four-hour conversation, they compared memories for the first time and laid misconceptions to rest.
They walked away from the Wall with their rubbings in hand. Debby said she planned to frame hers and display it in her home. Bob said he would do the same, putting it next to the shadow box where he keeps Alan's medals.
Chatting under a grove of trees in Constitution Gardens, Bob used such words as "relief" and "years" and "pain" and "happy" and "honored." The 11 letters he held said more.
Staff researcher Bobbye Pratt contributed to this report.