Eye Witness Testimonies: Danny Harker
Brother of Vietnam POW
Edited from interview with Jennifer Engel and Emily Grigg
I remember David long before he was a soldier in Vietnam. I looked up to my older brother, one of seven siblings. When I was younger, I thought of David as not only a high school star athlete but as a compassionate and generous person. Our family had no television while growing up, so David saved up money from his summer job at the Meade paper factory to buy one at Sears and Roebuck for the family to enjoy.
I was around twelve-years-old when David was drafted to go to Vietnam in the late 60’s; he was forced to go due to his suffering grades while attending Virginia Tech. For some reason, I wasn’t scared of the danger he was going to face and was proud of my brother for being a brave soldier.
David was reported as “missing in action” only two months after arriving in Vietnam. It was hard on our family during this two-year time period because there was no confirmation on whether David was dead or alive. Our religious, close-knit family looked to each other for comfort and hope. I never worried too much because God gave me the strength to believe David was going to survive. After a couple years of no information, we finally got word from two prisoners who were being held in the same camp that David was a prisoner of war being held in South Vietnam. My hope was revived because I knew that if David could make it this far, he could get through it.
Throughout David’s imprisonment, we tried to make contact with him through mail. Our family later found out he received none of our letters, but he was aware we were sending them. The North Vietnamese, however, used certain information about our family from the letters to taunt David. We obtained little information about David’s status or condition. Whatever information we did receive was from the Army, which gathered it from surviving soldiers.
David’s absence soon became a way of life. I got back to my daily activities although his presence was always in the back of my mind. It was hard to see people protesting the war and I didn’t understand why this was happening when my brother was risking his life. I wasn’t treated very differently in school by my teachers and peers, but one experience sticks out in my mind. I was walking down the hall to use the bathroom when I got reprimanded by a teacher for leaving the cafeteria. She told me to go back to lunch followed by the comment, “You’re not special just because your brother is a POW in Vietnam.” At the time I was merely surprised to hear these words, but looking back, I realize how offensive these words were.
My parents during this time were constantly upset and couldn’t cope with the situation as well as I could. I spent a lot of time comforting them and my two siblings at home. Dad was always very emotional whenever we talked about David. He handled this emptiness by talking about his feelings and weeping. I remember staying up with my father and listening to him grieve for many nights. My mother, however, dealt with her emotions inwardly. She expressed her pain by trying to make a difference. She joined the National League of Families which united mothers and wives of MIAs and POWs. They traveled to Paris and Geneva to petition for human rights of the POWs. Despite the ever-present sadness, we tried to remain upbeat, but things like holidays were always overshadowed by David’s lingering absence.
We got word that David was going to be released after five years of being a POW. Major Plummer came to our house in person instead of phoning to prove it wasn’t a hoax, and told us David was actually on a list and coming home. The officer arrived at 2:00 A.M. and my mother stayed up for his arrival. Instead of telling us right away, it seemed we had to drag the good news out of him. This confirmed my belief that David was going to return to us.
David was first taken to the Philippines for a couple of weeks. I remember seeing him on the TV because my mom always had it turned on. It was a surreal moment to see my brother walking off the plane even though he was skinny and haggard. After a week or two, he was taken to Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, where my family and I met him. We stayed up all night talking about his war experiences. I never felt so much admiration for my brother, and his time over there finally felt real to me. When we came back to Lynchburg, the community joined together to celebrate his arrival at the airport. His high school class even sold bumper stickers to raise money to buy him a Corvette.Looking back, David was then and is now my role model. In my eyes, he does no wrong and I appreciate him everyday knowing very well he could have died. He’s taught me not to take things for granted because you never know what will happen in life. He even changed how I grew up. I never would have been so close with my family if we hadn’t needed to support each other and be a shoulder to lean on. He also strengthened my faith and kept me away from things like drugs and alcohol. David is a hero to me, and I am thankful and proud to have him as my brother.
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