City Creatives: Women who altered history: Local author tells how Vietnam War wives helped change POW/MIA policy

City Creatives: Women who altered history: Local author tells how Vietnam War wives helped change POW/MIA policy
‘Unwavering: The Wives Who Fought to Ensure No Man is Left Behind’ releases on May 2. (Photo/Simon & Schuster, Inc.)

By Kerry Boyd Anderson 

Local Alexandria author Taylor Baldwin Kiland has a forthcoming book featuring a group of women who changed history.

“Unwavering: The Wives Who Fought to Ensure No Man Is Left Behind” tells the story of women who took matters into their own hands, demanding the return of husbands imprisoned or missing in Southeast Asia during the Viet-nam War. The book was co-written with Judy Silverstein Gray.

March 29, 1973 is recognized as the date of the withdrawal of U.S. combat troops and the homecoming of known prisoners from the Vietnam War. On the 50th anniversary of the return of nearly 600 POWs, the event is remembered as a high-profile and emotional event for the country, as well as for the families.

“These men were celebrated as heroes,” Kiland said. “The homecoming and release of the POWs was the only victory left from the Vietnam War.”

Raised in a Navy family, Kiland also served in the Navy for five years. As a child, she lived in the large Navy community of Coronado, California, and remembers the yellow ribbons on trees, the POW/MIA bracelets and other symbols designed to keep the imprisoned and missing in the forefront of the nation’s consciousness. Growing up, Kiland knew the children of POWs and MIAs, including some whose mothers are featured in the book. Those relationships were a major inspiration for “Unwavering” and Kiland’s two previous books on Vietnam War POWs.

“This book has been a true labor of love,” Kiland said.

The women’s “homefront battle” required that they break traditional conventions about women’s roles in society – and especially the behavior expected of military wives. These military wives had limited agency. For example, they faced restrictions such as an inability to open a bank account without a husband’s or father’s approval.

The military bureaucracy initially told the families of those lost or imprisoned in Southeast Asia to not publicly discuss their missing loved ones. The government was concerned that the North Vietnamese could use any information for propaganda. There was a broader sense that the women should let the diplomatic professionals handle the situation.

For a while, the women followed these rules.

But as time went on and more men disappeared, “the women were just sick of it,” Kiland said. The women became disillusioned with the government’s efforts, feeling that their plight was not a priority.

“Unwavering” tells the story of women who started a grassroots movement to pressure the government into publicly talking about the manipulation, starvation, torture and mistreatment of POWs. The women in Kiland’s book began to speak publicly and to organize effective lobbying campaigns. They contacted politicians and developed recognizable symbols such as the MIA flag. Through their work with the media, these women were able to uncover the fate of many MIAs and to ensure the release of prisoners.

Some of the women featured in the book saw their efforts lead to the return of their loved ones. Others tragically learned that their husbands had died, but at least they found closure. For some, though, years were spent before remains were found. Some never learned what happened to the men they loved.

Their personal journeys did not end with the war. The women and their children – and the men who returned home – moved on in different ways. Some left activism behind, while others continued.

Regardless of the personal outcomes of their stories, their efforts transformed how the United States approaches the principle of “no one left behind.” Kiland notes when the United States withdrew from Afghanistan after 20 years of war, no American soldier was left behind.

As the New York Times noted in 2021, “For the first time in the nation’s history, a major conflict was ending without the U.S. military leaving any troops behind: no one missing in action behind enemy lines, and no nameless, unidentified bones to be solemnly interred in the Tomb of the Unknowns.” 

Today, the United States military goes to extreme lengths to rescue any soldier who is captured – examples include Scott O’Grady in the Balkans, Jessica Lynch in Iraq and Bowe Berghdal in Afghanistan – and to find and identify the remains of soldiers lost in previous wars.

Kiland argued that the women featured in “Unwavering” made a huge contribution to that policy.

“I can trace a direct thread back to the work that the women started,” Kiland said.

Two of those women had close ties to Alexandria. Carol McCain, who was married to John McCain during his imprisonment, lived in Alexandria with her children for some time after the war. Candy Parish (later Ellis) was married to pilot Chuck Parish, who was listed as MIA after his plane crashed. She and her son, Hunter, lived in Alexandria from 1969 to 1971, and again after the war in the 1980s. Kiland hopes that the book will highlight what women can accomplish.

“A few women can change history,” she said.

Kiland noted that the women had to fight to make their voices heard. At a time when controversy about the war, the civil rights movement, the sexual and cultural revolution and political scandals easily grabbed headlines, they pushed for change.

In an era with no internet or social media, the women of “Unwavering” relied on telegrams, letters, phones and meetings. They helped bring home hundreds of Americans.

“They made sure that America never, ever forgets its missing,” Kiland said.