Families of POW's Seek Help Wife or Widow?
Her Life's Suspended Gregory By MERRELL GREGORY
NEITHER WIFE NOR WIDOW—Mrs. Kay Maxwell of Carlsbad, N.M., simply doesn't know whether her husband Calvin, who has been listed as missing in action for more than a year is dead or alive. There are more than 12,000 men like him whose fate is unknown.
Few American families have been left untouched by the war in Vietnam. Death has taken husbands, sons, fathers and brothers. Whole men have returned from the war with broken bodies and burdened minds. No lives, surely, have been so shattered as those of families whose men are held prisoner or who are simply missing in action. "This war is causing suffering everywhere," said a young wife whose husband has been missing for three and a half years. "And it's right next door to you." The military will not release their names, but in El Paso there are about half a dozen families whose men are POW's or MIA's. In this and four stories to follow, the Herald-Post interviews mothers and fathers, wives, and one son who share a sad bond. They have no idea when, or if, their men will ever share another Christmas with them. Kay Maxwell doesn't know if she is wife or widow. Until she finds out, her life is suspended. So Mrs. Maxwell pours the energy of her youth into working for the release of her man, despite indifferent response to her pleas, and she keeps hoping for him, despite the knowledge that he's probably dead.
That's about all she can do. Capt. Calvin W. Maxwell, an Army artillery officer, had been in Vietnam about four months when he was sent out with a team to search for a downed aircraft. The search party never returned. Their wrecked airplane was found, two bullet holes in it, in the jungles of South Vietnam. Capt. Maxwell was listed as missing in action Oct. 10, 1969. That makes him one of nearly 12,000 men whose fate simply is not known.
TWO SUNDAYS ago, Mrs. Maxwell, who lives in Carlsbad, drove to El Paso to attend a Christmas party for families of prisoners of war and men missing in action. We met in the home of Sgt. and Mrs. Howard Hill, whose son is a known prisoner in North Vietnam. Mrs. Maxwell sat in the Hill's living room, long legs propped up on an ottoman, a pack of cigarettes within easy reach. "Come on in," she said with a slight smile "I'm not going to get up." She seemed simply relaxed and friendly. After half an hour of talking, it was obvious that she was also weary.
KAY, IN HER mid-twenties, could be any serious young wife. Her thinness accents good, strong facial features and makes pantsuits particularly becoming on her. It's easy to guess that Mrs. Maxwell has gotten thinner in the past year. She translated her anguish into an unending campaign for the prisoners of war and the missing which doesn't always leave her time for meals or rest. Mrs. Maxwell is state coordinator for the New Mexico chapter of the League of American Families of Prisoners of War and Missing in Action. After Capt. Maxwell was lost, it didn't take her long to decide to speak out. "I'M A FIGHTER," she said. "When I get hurt, I fight back." "At first I was afraid to say anything, then I decided that I was not helping anybody by being quiet. If I do say something, and it helps our men, it's worth it. And we are finding out more, all the time." As state coordinator, Kay has taken on an endless cycle of traveling, speaking and corresponding. But keeping busy is no escape. "If you were doing something else, at least there would be some time when you weren't actually thinking about it," she said slowly. "But this way, you've always got your problem before you. I would say it's easier, not to talk, not to give speeches, not to get publicly involved. But we've got to remember that our men can't talk for themselves."
"ITS NOT ONLY for my husband, but for a lot of other men. Somebody has to fight for them. The way I see it, I'm fighting for the man whose family is not fighting. I'm also fighting for the man who has no family to fight for him. But once you get started in this, you're in so deep. Like there were days last week when I didn't have time to eat, with the traveling and making speeches. But I don't regret it. It's just that I wish there were somebody else to help." The indifference of the American public has made Kay's battle especially discouraging. Until recently, nobody much seemed to care. Asked to sign petitions for humane treatment of prisoners, people told her they didn't want to get involved, or the men shouldn't have been there in the first place.
NONE OF THE LEGISLATIVE candidates Kay wrote to in the last election answered her letters. Requests for mail to Hanoi brought little response. "I think it's because the American people don't like to look at the sad facts of life," Mrs. Maxwell said. "They don't really want to get involved. And there really wasn't that much being said then — the wives were being quiet." Mrs. Maxwell talks readily about her work. She brushes away an apology for all the questions. "Once you've opened yourself up that first time, it's not hard," she said. "I'm used to taking questions."
AND YET SHE'S not easy to talk to. She waits for questions, pauses a bit before she speaks, then answers, each word coming out slowly and distinctly. She volunteers nothing. You look at that grave, fine face, watch her reach for her lighter and start a new cigarette and listen to silence. And you cannot ask her about her. You manage one question. What keeps you going? "I lean on the love we had," she says. More silence. You switch to history, cool facts. Kay and Calvin were married when he was an undergraduate student at New Mexico State University and she was at Eastern New Mexico University. After Calvin graduated and was commissioned, he was allowed to go to graduate school before fulfilling his military obligation, and he received a master's degree in counseling in June, 1958(NB: Should be 1968).
MRS MAXWELL followed him to Ft. Hood, Tex., then to Ft. Sill, Okla., and stayed home while he went to Ranger School at Ft. Benning, Ga. After taking leave with her, he went to Vietnam. Mrs. Maxwell waited for him in their hometown, Carlsbad. She's still waiting. Because Capt. Maxwell went down in South Vietnam, his fate is particularly cloudy. Prisoners in North Vietnam are kept in centralized camps. Prisoners in South Vietnam, his wife said, usually travel and live with their captors. "I do feel like he's alive," she said, "But I know there's a good possibility that he's not."
NOT BEING a widow, Kay is not free to mourn, then heal. "At least with death it's something you can put your hands on, and then start rebuilding," she said. Being neither married nor single, there is no social group into which she fits. "At parties I feel like a third thumb. I no longer fit it with the married people. "I do wish I had children. At least I would have a part of him. But this is really better. How do you tell a child, “We don't know.” Mrs. Maxwell's ordeal has brought strength as well as change. "I would have never believed I would have been able to survive this, but I keep going," she said. "I just live day by day hoping that each day will bring me closer to the time when I'll know."