E. Alan Brudno was in the backseat of an F-4 Phantom fighter jet over Vietnam when it began taking enemy fire on Oct. 18, 1965. He and his pilot, Maj. Thomas Collins, were forced to eject, parachuting into what became a horrific 7½-year stay in prisoner of war camps where brutality was common and captives communicated in code.
Brudno, a 25-year-old first lieutenant at the time of his capture, endured it all until he was released in February 1973. But he took his own life four months later at age 33, unable to grapple not only with his memories, but with the poor way that many Americans treated Vietnam veterans, said his younger brother, Bob.
“How do you turn him in to the military and tell them of his problems when he clearly wanted no one to know about it? It could have ruined his career, I feared,” said Bob Brudno of the guilt he has felt for not raising concerns about his brother’s mental state when he returned to the United States.
“I just thought he needed time,” he said. ” But I did not know what his wife already knew – that he had attempted suicide only 6 days after he returned. Now I will wish I had for the rest of my life.”
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More than 700 Americans were held captive by the North Vietnamese, mostly after U.S. involvement in Vietnam escalated in 1964. In most cases, the families of those taken and the survivors are just now beginning to mark the 50th anniversaries of their capture.
The Air Force observed the collective sacrifice Monday with a ceremony at the Air Force Memorial near the Pentagon. It came on the 50th anniversary of the day that Lt. Col. Hayden J. Lockhart was shot down over Vietnam, becoming the first Air Force prisoner of war there. Monday also marked the 50th anniversary of the launch of Operation Rolling Thunder, a sustained bombing campaign against the North Vietnamese that lasted more than three years.
Air Force Capt. Ronald Storz was among those shot down over Vietnam. He became one of the “Alcatraz 11,” a group of American POWs who were held in a violent prisoner of war camp away from other captives. He endured several kinds of torture, and died in captivity in 1970, roughly five years after being shot down. He was posthumously promoted to lieutenant colonel.
His daughter, Monica, was among those who attended the ceremony Monday. She was just infant when he left for Vietnam, and has no recollection of him beyond the memories shared by their family members and those who served with him, including Adm. James Stockdale, who went on to earn the Medal of Honor and run for vice president in 1992.
“When you’re that little, you’re just awed by these guys,” Monica Storz said. “You’re looking at somebody in uniform.”
Maureen Kozak was 7 when her father, Lt. Col. Kelly Cook, went missing in Vietnam Nov. 10, 1967, after his F-4C plane was shot down. Her family moved afterward from California to Colorado Springs, where there would be more support from the Air Force Academy colleagues Cook had taught with, she said. He was declared killed in action in 1976, but his remains still haven’t been recovered.
“I just remember it being something that wasn’t talked about,” said Kozak, now the wife of Air Force Col. Raymond A. Kozak. “I was never told not to talk about it. We just didn’t talk about our situation the way people do today.”
The family members who attended the ceremony Monday said they are glad to see past sacrifices remembered. Bob Brudno said the families of returning POWs struggled with how to care for them, as they faced deep physical and psychological scars because of their treatment in captivity.
The Brudno family spent years working to have Alan Brudno’s name inscribed on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, and faced fierce opposition along the way. It was finally allowed in 2004, something covered in a Page One story in The Washington Post at the time.
“There’s pride at having him recognized not as a hero, but acknowledging what he went through,” his brother said. “His death defined him for years and years and years. I’ve had the chance to tell his story.”
This post has been updated with more extensive comments from Bob Brudno.