Through An Open Door

Through An Open Door

Fast Forward 30 Years.

Each war has its horror stories. It's not glorious or grand or spectacular. It is living and dying horror. That applies to both combatants and non-combatants alike.

For ground troops, it is always up close and personal. For those in the naval and air services it is somewhat distant and sterile. The recipients of their firepower are "targets." They don't have names or scents or personalities — only designations.

But that impersonal emotional barrier shatters when the conflict reaches out and snatches the airman or sailor from their technological encasement and delivers them into "enemy" hands. That is when war becomes not a struggle for victory, but one of survival.

That is the first and only order of the day, week, month, year, or years for the Prisoner of War. This was never more elongated in American history than during the Vietnam War.

More than 600 United States military became prisoners of the North Vietnamese. Many achieved the nightmare status of being in that category longer than any others in our history. It was our longest war — to this point.

On Nov. 11, the 50th anniversary of the renaming of Armistice Day, which recognized the ceasation of combat in World War I, to Veterans Day, an exhibit was unveiled at the Decatur House, near the White House. Entitled "Open Doors: Vietnam POWs 30 Years Later," it focuses on the lives of 30 airmen, who became some of the longest surviving prisoners of that conflict, since their return three decades ago. It will remain open until Jan. 25, 2004.

IT IS ALSO the story of the two creators of this now nationally acclaimed presentation. Two Alexandria natives were not even born when their longest serving POW began taking up residence at the "Hanoi Hilton" and merely elementary school girls when their subjects were again setting foot on U.S. soil after their long ordeal.

Jamie Howren Quinn, the photographer, and Taylor Baldwin Kiland, the writer, were six and seven years old respectively, in 1973 when the subjects of their work began arriving at Hickam Air Force Base, Hawaii, for repatriation. They were 6,000 miles away, students at St. Agnes, now St. Stephens St. Agnes. About as far as one can get from the deprivation of war's invisible battlefield — the POW compound.

Jamie went to St. Agnes from first through third grade. She graduated from Groveton High School, now West Potomac. Taylor, graduated from St. Agnes, although she traveled throughout her life as a member of a military family.

"We met in second grade and have been life-long friends," they confirmed sitting in the sunroom of Jamie's parents home on Shiver Drive in the Mount Vernon District. Both eventually ended up in Coronado, Calf., at various times due to affiliation with the U.S. Navy.

Taylor comes from a Navy family. Both her father and grandfather graduated from the Naval Academy in Annapolis. She was in Naval ROTC and went on active duty after graduating from the University of Southern California. She served five years in Naval Public Affairs achieving the rank of Lieutenant.

Jamie married into a Navy family. Her husband is a graduate of the Naval Academy and served as a submarine officer. During his career they were stationed at Coronado. They have a seven-year-old daughter and are in the process of returning to this area where he is joining a firm in Bethesda, Md. Taylor resides in Farlington.

THE DUO'S FIRST joint venture as a writer/photographer team was for a non-profit organization in San Francisco that ministers to homebound elderly. "We raised more than $50,000 in one night for that group," they both said. The show profiled the organization's clients, isolated seniors, in both text and a series of impressionistic photographs.

The seed for their POW project germinated one day while Kiland was working as a volunteer with Senator John McCain's campaign for the Republican presidential nomination in 2000. She met a number of former POWs who were campaigning on his behalf.

She remembers attending a live radio interview where several of these survivors spent the entire three hour interview relating stories about their time in captivity. After leaving the station they all went their separate ways, "But, no one had bothered to ask them about their lives since returning from Vietnam," she recalled.

"I thought to myself, they have been home for 27 years. Are they happy, healthy, and successful? How do they define happiness, health, and success? I knew there must be some good stories there, as well as valuable lessons for the rest of us," Kiland said.

"Very few had received any notoriety since they came home. They had reassimilated into their communities. I wondered what was it like to come home to family and friends after all those years in captivity? What was it like to come back to a country so divided about this war? A country so changed from when they left it? "

That was the key that opened the door to the Kiland and Quinn odyssey.

Kiland's father introduced the team to their first POW interviewee in 2001. He, in turn, introduced them to another. And, it went on from there, back and forth across the nation for the next 18 months and some $85,000 later of their own capital, a personal debt they are still working to satisfy.

Finally, on August 29, 2002, the Museum of History and Art in Coronado debuted their visual/verbal chronicle of 30 American airman, who not only withstood years of physical, mental, and psychological deprivation, but also became living symbols of the indomitable human spirit. The show invites everyone to pass through their "Open Doors."

BOTH THE TITLE and logo for this exhibit came from two of the POWs themselves. Captain John Michael McGrath, USN (Ret), who spent 2,074 days in captivity, designed the exhibit's logo. "If I were to have one open door in my prison experience, it would be the door for my cell in Thunderbird Hanoi Hilton," wrote McGrath in an artist's statement he sent to the two creators.

The exhibit title came from a statement made by Commander Paul Edward Galanti, USN (Ret), a resident of Richmond, shot down on June 17, 1966, Bunker Hill Day, when the command was, "Don't fire till you see the whites of their eyes," and released 2,432 days later on Feb. 12, 1973, Abraham Lincoln's 164th birthday.

Galanti said, "There's no such thing as a bad day when you have a door knob on the inside of the door."

Kiland, in her write-up on Galanti, emphasizes he truly believed throughout his captivity, "From the day I was shot down until the day we went home, I was convinced it would just be another six months."

That steadfastness of spirit was also exemplified by two other former POW subjects — the longest serving POW of the group, Commander Everett Alvarez, Jr., USN (Ret) from Potomac, Md. Shot down Aug. 5, 1964, he served 3,000-plus days in captivity. And, Federal Trade Commissioner and Lieutenant Colonel, USMC, (Ret), Orson G. Swindle, III, of Alexandria.

WHEN ASKED what it was like being the first POW, Alverez responded, "Somebody had to do the advance work."

As he related to Kiland, "Being the first has its positives and negatives. Especially when I speak to women's groups and I'm introduced as the first guy shot down and held for eight and one half years. The ladies ... all exclaim, 'Ohhh!' And I wonder, why didn't this happen to me when I was in high school?"

Swindle, who served 2,305 days as a POW, stayed in the thick of combat even upon retiring from the Corps. This time it was political combat. He held several Reagan Administration posts, served as Ross Perot's spokesman in his 1992 presidential bid and twice ran unsuccessfully for Congress from Hawaii, according to Kiland.

"Now, as one of five politically appointed Federal Trade Commissioners, Orson Swindle finds himself in a world of lawyers and economists and he's neither," Kiland writes. "I have to run a little faster ... Things don't always go my way and I get my head knocked every now and then, but I just love the fray."

At the core of Quinn's and Kiland's crusade was a desire to change the perception of the Vietnam veteran "held by so many Americans as someone who had dropped out."

Quinn admitted, "My image of Vietnam veterans was shaped by the popular media. Getting to know a few of the POWs personally completely changed my previous perception.

"If, in some small way, I can help to defy the lingering negative stereotype of the Vietnam veteran, then I feel we have accomplished something significant."

Kiland and Quinn are convinced this group of men have lessons to teach "about inner will, the strength of the human spirit and how ordinary people can endure extraordinary circumstances."