I have linked this article to Facebook and emailed it to others, but if you haven’t read it, here is the story of my mother-in-law, Linda Oskins, tracking down and finding the POW whose name she wore on a bracelet since Vietnam. (You really should read it; it’s fascinating!)
On our family reunion trip to Northern California last week we got the opportunity to meet him. I was really excited, and nervous, telling Linda it felt a little like a blind date (would he like us?). I didn’t know what to expect…in my mind I pictured that this man, held captive in various prison camps including the infamous “Hanoi Hilton,” would most likely be grave and serious. I was wrong. CWO Michael O’Connor is warm and friendly, grateful and humble. Meeting him was such an honor. I could hardly contain tears as he told various stories of his time (over five years) in the camps, being held in a dirt hole where he could not move even to brush insects from his body, being starved, and when finally fed, forced to use chopsticks covered in manure, and sitting next to another prisoner who was blown to pieces as a bomb dislodged a boulder that went flying into him. Through his crash and initial imprisonment, he wore a St. Christopher medal, which he believes protected him (that and the “luck of the Irish”). He was the only person of four to survive the helicopter crash that paralyzed half of his body temporarily. He saw so many men perish in the camps that he was convinced that he would never return home. In fact, the VC threatened many times to execute him, but miraculously, they didn’t. He believes it is in part due to the notoriety he had gathered by his parents’ efforts to bring him home. Their trip to Grenada on his behalf was funded by the purchase of those silver POW bracelets, and he credits the bracelets for keeping him alive. He also believes that he was meant to live, and I agree. I think he was meant to return and serve as an example of selflessness and bravery. I think he was meant to return for this very day, this meeting, where he could be reminded how much his sacrifice meant to those at home.
Today, married to an equally warm and friendly woman named Dawn, he has two grown sons and lives a peaceful, grateful life. When speaking of the bracelets and the letters he has received (he says up to 5,000 letters!), he humbly defers to the men that he says “did so much more than he did.” Those men aren’t here today to meet at a restaurant in rainy Auburn, California to meet a woman who never forgot their names, and never stopped searching to see if they survived. He says that they deserve the glory. I was so impressed by his candor and his humility. He is truly a hero. I do not know how I would have fared had I been in his position, although I doubt I would have done as well. His emotional strength is staggering. I was relived and happy to see that his life after that horrible time has been calm and nice. He has adjusted well to the outside world. Our conversation over lunch was friendly and interesting. Aside from his stories from the war and his questions about our lives, we discussed commonplace things. He grew up not far from where my dad’s family still lives in Michigan. He told us about a letter he wrote to his parents that was taken from Vietnam by Joan Baez. His son is getting married in the fall. Both Michael and Dawn seemed to enjoy little Jacob, who was quite restless and antsy after days of being cooped up with a high fever and feeling awful.
I left the lunch feeling absolutely awed by this great man. It was a wonderful reminder to me that our heroes are everyday people. This country is comprised of strong, resilient men and women, eager to serve, desperate to survive, humble and honest. I felt so honored to have met him. I am so proud of Linda for keeping in touch with him, and while he wouldn’t admit it, I think he is exactly the person that should be honored and remembered. I hope to tell Jacob about CWO O’Connor when he is old enough to remember. I think meeting him is something Jacob should remember and be proud of.