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- December 17, 1979
- Vol. 12
- No. 25
Marine Robert Garwood, the Last P.O.W. Back from Vietnam, Faces Court-Martial for Desertion
Garwood is the last American POW to come home from the war—and by far the most controversial. Previously released prisoners depicted him as a traitor who worked with his Vietnamese captors as an interpreter, guard and even the leader of a Vietcong cadre. "Bobby was definitely a defector," says ex-POW David Harker, who was with Garwood at the Khe Sanh Valley jungle prison camp and will testify against him at his trial. Harker claims that Garwood was his guard for five and a half years, and Army Sgt. Richard Williams, another POW, was allegedly taunted by Garwood in prison. "I spit on you," the private reportedly snarled. "All people like you disgust me."
Still, Garwood's culpability is far from established. Even Harker (who earlier this year had argued against prosecution) admits that Garwood supplied extra food for American POWs, tuned their radios to the Voice of America instead of required Radio Hanoi broadcasts, and provided them with forbidden information. "You can't imagine what a great morale-booster that was," Harker said earlier this year. "You'd have to understand the conditions to know what Bobby went through. If anybody stands in judgment of him, it should be the POWs."
Innocent or guilty, Garwood suffered greatly in North Vietnamese prisons—and suffers still. His lawyer, Dermot Foley, says that Garwood returned from Vietnam on the verge of mental collapse. But because military law does not recognize the confidentiality of doctor-patient relationships, he cannot consult a psychiatrist. The beaches bordering Camp Lejeune, N.C.—where he is stationed as a mail clerk—remind him of the site of his capture by the enemy. "Whenever I see the ocean, I get flashbacks," he shudders. At Thanksgiving, Bobby bluntly refused the invitation of his brother Jeff to join in his once favorite sport of rabbit hunting. "I've seen enough killing," he said.
Bobby Garwood was a naive 17-year-old high school dropout with a low-normal IQ of 82 when he joined the Marine Corps, expecting it to make a man of him. Instead, he only lost his youth. After eight years of waiting, his high school sweetheart gave up hope and married; she now has two children. The equipment Bobby and his father bought in hopes of setting up their own print shop now gathers dust in a garage. "It would have been a pretty good business by now," he reflects. Bobby finds women's liberation and disco dancing unfathomable, and dating almost impossible. "If I get involved with a girl, what could I offer her?" he worries. "I don't have a future right now."
Predictably, some of Garwood's fellow leathernecks at Camp Lejeune shun him. After his barracks windows were broken a few times, a sympathetic ex-Marine pilot, Dale Long, invited the private to move into his home off base. "Bobby really needed a friend," Long's wife, Donna, recalls—and for a few months he found one. "Dale and Bobby just went off by themselves a lot to talk, have a beer," Donna says. But tragedy broke even that tenuous connection; last October Dale Long was killed by a drunk driver.
Since then Garwood has become a surrogate father to Long's two sons, 14 and 9, and he keeps himself busy working out his legal defense. Garwood feels he's being prosecuted because his untimely return embarrasses a government which has insisted that no Americans are still held captive in Vietnam. "If I had come back in a body bag," he says, "nobody would know who Bobby Garwood was. Just my being alive is the big problem." His lawyer, Foley, a longtime counsel to MIA families, claims that Vietnamese refugees have reported literally hundreds of American POWs still alive—and that Washington refuses to take action on the reports. The State Department, however, believes the refugees are lying, partly to discredit Hanoi and possibly because the MIA groups have offered up to $500 for each reported sighting.
Garwood is under orders not to discuss the POWs he hints are left behind—nor can he relate what actually happened to him in the hands of the North Vietnamese. Doing so at trial will not be pleasant for him. His father, Jack, remembers that the day Bobby began to open up, "things got so bad he started crying, so I made him quit." But Garwood does offer for himself a bottom-line defense: that, taken by a ruthless enemy as an 18-year-old recruit, he survived. "The veterans know what I've gone through," he says. "We were fighting for survival in an almost impossible situation—out in the jungle alone, sink or swim. They don't teach you how to survive that sort of thing in boot camp."
The impending court-martial puts Garwood's life on hold, possibly for months. Inexplicably, though, he harbors no bitterness toward the Marine Corps and still nourishes hope that it will be his career. "One of the first things I did when I returned to the United States was to put on my uniform," he says. "The only time I'm going to take it off is when I'm forced."
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