Thursday, August 23, 2007

Why I Wear the MIA Bracelet

The MIA Bracelet reads:
USAF 28 AUG 68 Laos

Those who have met me have seen the red metal band that always seems to be around my wrist. Those who know me also know that I almost never remove the bracelet for any reason. I work with it on, I play with it, sleep, shower and bath with it. At some nudist events it get misinterpreted as an indicator of no photos . . . until I explain otherwise. This simple piece of red-anodized aluminum has been on my right wrist since December 19th, 1971 and I wear it with honor and deeply-felt remembrance for a fellow airman lost in a little-known side-arena of the Vietnam War. I wear it in honor of TSgt Elbert A. Phillips who was lost over the unfriendly jungles of Laos on the 28th of August, 1968; at first presumed missing in action (MIA) and then later, officially designated killed in action (KIA) though his remains have not yet been found. I promised myself at the time I asked for this particular MIA bracelet, that I would wear it until Sergeant Phillips was returned home . . . as a repatriated MIA or the return of his remains. I wear the bracelet to this day, 36 years later . . . and it does not come off my wrist!

A few days ago I was Googling my name . . . as we all should do from time to time . . . and I came across a web site devoted to opening up the muddy history of our dirty little war in Laos. Took me completely by surprise because there I was listed. The surprise was that when I left Vientiane, Laos after my tour of duty I was very sternly told that the circumstances of my being there were never to be talked about . . . permanently. So I didn't. As far as my family was concerned, I was safely stationed at an airbase in Thailand, wore a uniform like anyone else and did mundane things in support of the air war over North Vietnam. My parents would have freaked out if they'd known that myself, and a few hundred others over the years, have been 'sheep-dipped' . . . a black ops term, if ever. We were sanitized of military clothing, surrendered our military ID to the embassy and slunk about Laos . . . in a state of three-way civil war . . . in civilian clothes. It was called Project 404 and was your basic Air America stuff of the movie, gunships and Forward Air Controllers (FACs, callsign Raven). I spent most of my time in the Air Attache office at the embassy doing what was politely called HUMINT, or Human Intelligence.

Okay . . . so I'm outed on a website that wants to set the history right for our secret little war. Removing the uniform and pretending to be a civilian strips a soldier of his Geneva Convention rights; something we were always cognizant of as we were shot at while flying back and forth to scratch-in-the-dirt airfields high atop the jagged karst of the Laotian mountains surrounding the Plain de Jars. What we were fighting for no one ever really knew. The North Vietnamese were perfectly happy to stay far to the east on the Ho Chi Minh Trail beyond our area of operations. We were supposedly supporting the Royal Laotian Army against the communist Pathet Lao insurgency . . . but Laotians hate to fight so the Hmong people of the highlands became the proxy warriors. We supported them with arms, rice drops (so much so by the end of the war that many young Hmong believed that rice came from the sky). Forward Air Controllers flying O-2 Birddogs and T28 Nomads scouted for the Hmong fighters and directed gunships (Puff the Magic Dragon) manned by American airmen (sans uniform). TSgt Phillips was a medic transiting as a non-aircrew member on a T-28D when the plane went down. I learned about Sergeant Phillips while getting drunk in a Vientiane club (aka brothel) called the White Rose . . . the place where most of us 'on loan' soldiers spent our scant off-duty hours. Casualties were not unheard of but everybody knew everyone . . . it was a very small community and our very existence stood on shaky foundations. Back at the embassy I put my name in to wear one of those bracelets . . . and asked for Sergeant Phillips.

So I wear a bracelet in honor of him. Many soldiers, seamen and airmen lost their lives in places well known. Few knew of the covert nature of the air support we gave in Laos.

So I'm outed and it's somewhat of a relief because I can talk about it now. I stare at the list, looking for familiar names. There are a number of them but right above my entry is a name in red . . . red for individuals who were killed in Laos . . . and who is it? It's my familiar acquaintance for these past 36 years . . . TSgt Elbert Austin Phillips.

So . . . what does this have to do with nudism? Nothing I suppose, unless you happen to catch me wandering about nude and wonder why I never take off the red-metal bracelet . . . even in sauna rooms where superheated air quickly makes the metal very hot . . . or you find me arguing with the photographer that my red bracelet does not mean I don't want to be photographed.

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