Down by the Lincoln Memorial, night begins with the buzz of a single gas-powered generator. Soon, a second one grinds into action, then a third. The small motors make a locust clatter along the sacred path to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial—”the Wall.” All night long, the portable dynamos will juice the light bulbs hanging inside three neighboring wooden shacks.
Seated in the one with olive-drab walls, Larry Bice is staring straight ahead at Lincoln’s marble visage. The president’s chiseled countenance is solemn and full of strength. Tonight, Bice needs some of the latter. He’s got a roaring headache. His shift won’t end for hours. Aspirin’s not helping, and neither is the wind, which continuously whips the damp off the Reflecting Pool behind him.
It’s 8 p.m. on a Thursday in November. Bice, 53, a sturdy, soft-spoken man in camouflage pants, checks the thermometer hanging from his coat zipper: 45 degrees. As he cranks the knob on the propane heater, its glowing red eye widens, toasting the air. Bice pulls off his black cap, then puts his head down on the counter. But he refuses to let himself nod off. He can’t. He’s here on a mission.
In the late ’60s, Bice served for one year with the 4th Infantry Division in Vietnam. He has since devoted almost a quarter of his life to this 6-foot-tall hut. The makeshift structure looks something like a roadside fireworks stand, only it never closes for the season. Bice is one of a dozen or so people who man the booth 24/7, 365 days a year.
The name of the booth—and the organization that supports it—is the Last Firebase. In Vietnam, firebases were strategically placed artillery stations that laid cover for ground forces. This firebase’s cover is symbolic: The group’s mission statement, posted on the side of the booth, reads, “Standing Vigil Until They All Come Home.”
Like its two neighboring booths, the Last Firebase began as a round-the-clock vigil for the thousands of American soldiers unaccounted for at the end of the Vietnam War. Over time, what started as gatherings of people evolved into manned makeshift shelters. Since the Wall opened, in 1982, as many as two dozen similar stands have come and gone. The vigil booths once were outposts for activists who believed that Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, and other Communist nations were continuing to hold American soldiers as prisoners of war (POWs). Back then, the national healing that the Wall was intended to foster had just begun, and the plight of soldiers missing in action (MIA) was a front-page issue.
Today, a quarter-century after Saigon’s fall, the POW/MIA cause has dropped out of the public consciousness. In 1993, a special Senate committee issued an extensive report deflating the longstanding charge that the Nixon administration had knowingly abandoned POWs in Vietnam in the early ’70s and then covered up the fact. Furthermore, the committee’s 15-month investigation yielded no evidence to support the assertion that any American servicemen missing in Southeast Asia still survived. Today, even many die-hard activists admit that the odds of POWs’ still being alive are slim to nil.
Meanwhile, relations between the United States and Vietnam have greatly improved. Last fall, Bill Clinton became the first American president to set foot in Vietnam since the war. His visit was symbolic balm for the political healing that’s already taken place: The United States lifted its trade embargo against Vietnam in 1994 and reopened its embassy in Hanoi the following year. Not surprisingly, Bice and his fellow activists liken these developments to nails in the coffin of their cause.
Yet the last three of the POW/MIA booths still cling tenaciously to their prime spots on the National Mall. For two decades, these vigils have drawn scorn from their many critics, who have charged that the POW/MIA “industry” runs on snake oil and false hope. Other veterans and MIA family members who are believers in the cause nevertheless scoff at the Last Firebase because of one simple fact: Bice may be on a mission, but he’s also on the job. That is, all three booths are simultaneously exercising First Amendment freedom and abiding by the first commandment of capitalism: Thou shalt sell stuff.
The booths offer hundreds of types of military pins and patches for sale, as well as an array of commemorative coins and artwork, bumper stickers lampooning Hanoi Jane, and metal bracelets engraved with the names of MIAs. Most of the items cost between $1 and $12.
Many veterans have complained for years that vendors have no place on the Mall. In the early ’90s, Jan Scruggs, the Vietnam veteran and activist who had led the effort to build the Wall, initiated a letter-writing campaign against the booths. Groups such as the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) and the National League of Families of American Prisoners and Missing in Southeast Asia have passed resolutions urging the National Park Service, which oversees the Mall, to banish the booths.
And criticism remains sharp. “When I see those guys on the Mall, it seems they’re capitalizing on the emotion of the issue,” says Bruce Harder, the director of the VFW’s national security and foreign affairs office, who specializes in the MIA search. “To them, keeping the issue alive is good for business.”
But Bice, who manages the Last Firebase’s day-to-day operations, argues that he shouldn’t have to stand shoulder to shoulder with the hot dog carts and souvenir hawkers out on Constitution Avenue. The Last Firebase, he reasons, is a nonprofit group that must support itself somehow. Bice says that sales bring in just enough money to keep the booth running.
Many veterans’ organizations, including those on record as critics of the Mall vigils, sell many of the same items that the booths sell—they just don’t do so in the vicinity of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, a place considered hallowed ground by many veterans. However, as Bice sees it, flying the POW/MIA flag near the Wall—which 4.5 million people visit each year—is the best way to keep the issue in the public eye.
“The government hasn’t done right by its soldiers, and it wants people to forget,” says Bice. “We’re here to remind them.”
Bice and other workers at the Last Firebase have vowed to hold their ground until the U.S. government delivers the “fullest possible accounting” not only for all of the soldiers who went missing in Southeast Asia, but also for the thousands of MIAs still unaccounted for from World War II and the Korean War. The term “fullest possible accounting” is a mantra in the POW/MIA world; it generally means the repatriation and identification of remains or, at the very least, information about the circumstances of a soldier’s death.
Government efforts to account for missing servicemen are ongoing. According to the Department of Defense Prisoner of War/Missing Personnel Office (DPMO), the number of soldiers unaccounted for in all of Southeast Asia stands at 1,991—1,498 of them in Vietnam. The DPMO steers the policy for a network of military units and private groups involved in the search for remains. Organizations such as the VFW, the American Legion, and the National League of Families of American Prisoners and Missing in Southeast Asia closely monitor the Defense Department’s recovery operations in Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, and North Korea.
Since 1992, U.S. recovery missions have led to the identification of 273 sets of American remains. Although such missions take place on a regular basis—five times each year in Vietnam, for example—search efforts are prone to snags. Government bureaucracy and internal policy disputes, not to mention the lack of cooperation by foreign governments, have often hampered the U.S. effort to account for missing soldiers. Finding and identifying all remains could take decades. Some men may never be accounted for.
Given the Last Firebase’s mission, Bice might have to stand out here forever—which, he freely admits, might sound absurd to most people.
“People think we’re just hanging on to the war, that we’re in denial,” says Bice. “But those people don’t know what we know. [It’s] why people shouldn’t judge us just because we’re doing something we believe in.”
These tarp-covered footnotes to the Wall may have outlasted their original purpose, but over time they’ve acquired a new role as a refuge for all kinds, from the down-and-out to the true believers in the POW/MIA cause.
Count Bice as one of the latter. After he quit his job as a manager at a manufacturing company in Missouri, he came to D.C. at the invitation of some of his fellow veterans who’d asked him to help coordinate demonstration activities on the Mall. Because Bice had no job, no wife, and no kids, he figured he could afford to take a timeout for some activism. He planned to stay in D.C. for three months and then move on. That was in 1989.
Now Bice’s body is marking the time. Gray has crept into his reddish-blond beard. He’s getting a belly. He knows he’s reached the season when most men seize something new: sports cars and hobbies, second homes or second wives. He figures it’s at least time to start thinking about retirement.
But he probably won’t make enough money to retire working here. He earns $6.25 an hour during three or four shifts per week at the Last Firebase, in what at the moment is his only job. But even if he won the lottery tomorrow, he’d have another account to settle: If you’ve spent nearly two decades working for a cause, how can you tell when it’s time to close up shop?
“When something like this gets in your blood, you start battling,” says Bice. “In a battle, you never think about what comes next.”
The National Mall wasn’t always a place for demonstrations and protests, nor were its grounds always so pristine. The Mall has housed all sorts of eyesores, from carp-breeding pools in the 19th century to a massive open-air lumberyard in the 1930s. Later, the Mall became a popular spot for swimming in summer and ice-skating in winter. But not until Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1963 march on Washington did the Mall assume its modern identity as the front yard of the First Amendment.
“The television era made the Mall the perfect stage,” says Judy Scott Feldman, a local historian who has taught Washington art and architecture at American University. “Groups could hold a demonstration with the nation’s most celebrated monuments as backdrops and broadcast their message to an enormous audience.
“That’s how the Mall’s supposed be,” adds Feldman, “a place that incites passion and emotion.”
The Mall’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial has succeeded on both counts. Bearing the names of more than 58,000 servicemen who died or went missing in Vietnam, the black-granite edifice speaks loudly because of its simplicity. At first, some criticized designer Maya Ying Lin’s plan as too abstract and funereal, but the strengths of the design won out. The Wall’s creators intentionally sought a monument that took no political stand on the war. Still, even in the earliest days of the Wall’s existence, impromptu groups of veterans and MIA family members gathered near the memorial to voice a strong political message: that the government was not doing enough to find its missing soldiers.
Meanwhile, in the years after the Wall was dedicated, many people lingered at the somber monument day and night for personal, not political, reasons. Various volunteer groups formed to lend emotional support to the streams of visitors who arrived every day, every hour, to visit the memorial. The most prominent of those groups was the Friends of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, whose volunteers helped support people like Wanda Ruffin.
Ruffin came to D.C. on a hot summer day in 1983, located her husband’s name on the Wall, and stood on tiptoes to reach it. Earlier that year, his remains had returned in a container the size of a shoebox. He had been missing in action in North Vietnam since 1966. As she pressed her fingers to the stone, she was overcome.
That’s when Ruffin noticed a stranger standing behind her. He gave her a pat on the back and welcomed her to a tent for some shade and a cup of water. In various tents and at various tables, family members would constantly gather to meet others who were also coping with loss.
“In the beginning, the groups down there were a wonderful comfort,” says Ruffin, who lives in Fairfax, Va. “There were so many people down there to help visitors at the Wall. Their constant presence was something that kept the POW/MIA issue alive. I credited them, in part, for the return of my husband.”
Veterans groups from all over the country started lending their support to information tables and vigil tents devoted to the POW/MIA issue. Many groups put up donation jars to help fund a burgeoning activist movement. Often, their jars filled with hundreds of dollars a day.
“It wasn’t long before people saw how easily they could make money down there,” says Ruffin. “Visiting the Wall is such a spiritual thing, but it evolved into a business. A lot of people couldn’t help but feel uncomfortable about that.”
Small-time entrepreneurs started mixing in with the well-intentioned. Vendors with backpacks hawked everything from T-shirts to beer mugs bearing the black-and-white POW/MIA logo: a silhouette of a man with a guard tower and barbed wire in the background. In the late ’80s and the mid-’90s, more than two dozen sales booths or tables might have been operating near the Wall in any given week. The National Park Service, which generally prohibits sales on the Mall without a permit, tried to curb this commerce when it first began. But the agency’s own rules got in the way.
Then, as now, the same Park Service regulations that allowed groups to demonstrate on the Mall also permitted those groups to sell approved merchandise in certain areas. Essentially, any group with a message could sell newspapers, buttons, and bumper stickers so long as those items conveyed a message directly related to the group’s mission. In other words, the booths on the Mall were—and are—technically regarded as ongoing demonstrations—not stores.
To set up a sales booth on the Mall, groups must apply to the Park Service for a public-gathering permit, the same type that organizations obtain to hold rallies and marches. The Park Service then issues a permit for a particular site that’s designated for sales. The permits are free and valid for 21 days. The operators of the three booths—the Last Firebase, Warriors Inc., and AFFA—near the Wall now keep their spaces by continuously reapplying for the same permits.
The only binding agreement between the Park Service and a permit-holder is the permit itself, so there’s little regulation. The Park Service can approve only the time and place of a demonstration. It can’t check the financial books of demonstrators who also sell things because they don’t technically operate businesses.
Because demonstrations and vigils are activities protected by the First Amendment, the Park Service also may not discriminate. If members of the Ku Klux Klan wanted to set up a booth and sell their message-oriented wares next week, they’d have only to ensure that their booth did not exceed the maximum required dimensions of 6 feet by 15 feet.
Earle Kittleman, communications officer for the National Capital Region of the Park Service, concedes that it’s sometimes hard to tell where free speech ends and commerce begins.
“Someone might ask, ‘Why not see these booths for what they are?’” says Kittleman. “The answer is that we have to walk a delicate line to balance First Amendment rights with the rights of normal park use.”
The vigil booths have been around so long that they have gained a certain legitimacy of their own. At least that’s the consensus among longtime observers. Ira Hamburg, former president of the now-defunct Friends of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, has seen the evolution of the booths firsthand. Although he once questioned the authenticity of many of the vigils, he now believes they provide an odd type of public service to Mall visitors.
“With the MIA issue so dead, it’s hard to say that these guys in the vigils are actually hurting anyone,” says Hamburg. “What these guys are doing is providing good theater. After visiting the Wall, there’s a strong sense on visitors’ parts to open up their wallets. They want to feel like they’re helping veterans. Often what people are seeing in those booths are the casualties of the war.”
It’s a Tuesday afternoon, and Jeff, who mans the booth next to the Last Firebase, is making his best sales pitch.
“Good afternoon, sir,” Jeff says to a man who’s just stepped up to the counter. “Would you like to hear about this very special coin we’re offering today?”
Jeff speaks softly behind a gray-and-black beard that foams out past his ears and falls, matted and tangled, to his stomach. He curls his cracked, red thumb and forefinger around a copper-colored coin and hoists it up for inspection.
“Sir, this coin commemorates the Vietnam War,” says Jeff, leaning forward. “It is made from the same metal that the Smithsonian uses for all of its commemorative coins. And, sir, because it was minted in the year 2000, it is also a millennium coin.”
“If you are interested in purchasing this very special coin today, sir,” Jeff says, “I can offer it at the price of only $12.”
The browser utters a “No thanks” and walks away. A few minutes later, a young couple strolls up to the booth and the routine starts again.
Today, as often happens, the cold has left a yellow crust below Jeff’s eyes. Jeff is homeless. He looks to be in his 50s and claims to have served in the military for 22 years, but because he refuses to give his last name (and nobody else admits to knowing it), that claim’s hard to verify. According to the guys who work the other vigils, Jeff’s been hanging out on the Mall for years. He used to run snacks and sodas to the vigil booths for tips. This spring, he landed what is more or less a full-time position manning this blue booth, called Warriors Inc.
Jeff’s here almost all the time. He keeps a loaf of bread and a stock of canned goods behind the counter. This afternoon, empty milk cartons and what appears to be a jug of urine rest on the floor at his feet. He says he makes less than minimum wage here—but that he’s proud of his job.
“I provide a service,” says Jeff. “I see myself as adding color to the experience of visiting the Wall. If people want to buy something, I help them have a more fulfilling relationship with their purchase.”
In a typical day, Jeff gives people directions to the nearest bus stops, pay phones, and restrooms. He can answer practically any question about the Wall. He’s well-versed in military history. But he can’t say for sure where the money from sales at Warriors Inc. goes. He suggests asking his boss.
But his boss, Walt Sides, isn’t much help, either. Sides did not return repeated calls to his home in Winchester, Va., and he declined a request for an interview through a man named Jerry Cunningham, who handles the booth’s week-to-week operations. Cunningham, who also lives in Winchester, says it’s Warriors’ policy not to speak with the press.
Sides did two tours of duty with the U.S. Marines in Vietnam in the late ’60s, according to military documents. He founded Warriors Inc.—the booth and the nonprofit organization of the same name—in the early ’80s. According to the 2000 edition of The National Directory of Nonprofit Organizations, Warriors Inc. had a gross income of $76,270 in 1999. But the directory doesn’t say which, if any, causes the group supports.
The Internal Revenue Service requires all 501(c)(3) organizations (publicly supported groups with educational or charitable missions) that gross more than $25,000 per year to provide members of the public with copies of their tax forms on request. Although Warriors Inc. fits that description, the group has yet to respond to a written request from the Washington City Paper for copies of its 1999 tax forms.
Critics of the booths allege that the vigils are 24-hour profit machines. The organizers pay no rent, no advertising, no property tax, and no sales tax. Wages are low, and benefits are nonexistent. Business may be slow in winter, but the tourist season brings millions of people to this very spot. And they carry cash.
Each of the booths implies, through signage or imagery, that its money helps support a cause. But today, so many years after most of the country laid the POW/MIA issue to rest, it’s not too clear what the cause is. None of the three booths, for example, are presently helping to fund MIA-recovery missions. The major private organizations that participate with the government in such efforts—including the VFW, the National League of Families of American Prisoners and Missing in Southeast Asia, and the American Legion—say that the vigils have made no donations to them in the last five years.
Oscar Mayers Sr. says that’s because the sales are barely enough to keep his booth running. Mayers is the manager of the AFFA booth, which is situated just across from Warriors Inc., and the Last Firebase. According to Mayers, AFFA stands for “American Freedoms for Always.” The booth’s former manager says it stands for “Americans Fighting for Americans.” Nobody’s quite sure which it is. But Mayers says he is sure that the booth isn’t making him rich.
“If someone comes down here looking to make a living, they’re looking in the wrong place,” says Mayers. “A lot of the times, I have to take money out of my own pocket to reorder merchandise.”
Presumably, the money in his pocket and AFFA’s money are the same. Unlike the other two vigil organizations, AFFA is not recognized as a nonprofit group by the IRS. Mayers declines to reveal how much money the booth takes in. A former employee of the AFFA booth who asked not to be named says the booth is not nonprofit, but rather “profitless.”
A Korean War-veteran-cum-activist named John Holland founded the AFFA booth in the early ’80s. Holland was a die-hard who lobbied Congress for all sorts of POW/MIA legislation. He’s since retired from the booth and the cause altogether. Mayers, who is also retired, assumed the reins of AFFA last year. Although Mayers’ business card is emblazoned with the POW/MIA logo, he admits that he’s no expert on the issue.
“But I do know war’s hell,” says Mayers. “I’ve seen a picnic of fire in my life. I’m here because there are a lot of tears down here, and there are no counseling booths for vets.”
Mayers is 70. A lifelong D.C. resident, he commanded a tank in the Korean War. After that, he worked for several local police departments. Guys around here call him “Sarge.”
Some of the men who work in his booth are vets, guys who have worked down here for years. Others are transients, or guys between jobs, who might work for six weeks or so and then move on. Mayers says he likes running the booth because it gives him a routine. Each day at about 1 p.m., he drives down to check on the booth and pick up the propane tanks for refilling. Several times, I see him strike up conversations with passers-by—veterans or otherwise—that last as long as 20 minutes.
“A lot of older veterans are loners,” Mayers says. “If you stay in the military a long time, you get used to always drifting away from home. So you’re not going to want to ever cuddle up at home. If your best years are in the military, it’s hard to make the adjustment to [retirement]. That’s why these booths are important. People who come down here talk the same language. It’s good therapy.”
In other words, Mayers believes that simply manning the booth is a worthy mission in and of itself.
Those who operate the Last Firebase don’t disagree, but they say they’ve done more than just fly their flag. In 1990, members of the Last Firebase helped found the National Alliance of Families for the Return of America’s Missing Servicemen, a Seattle-based watchdog group. Each year, the Last Firebase helps underwrite the group’s annual meeting in D.C. In the past, its money has also funded a variety of demonstrations and lawsuits on behalf of POW/MIA family members. The Last Firebase also rents a five-bedroom house in Annandale, Va., that has accommodated traveling veterans and activists for years.
Last year, the Last Firebase reported a gross income of $114,843. According to its 1999 tax returns, the organization had expenses totaling $112,144. About half of those expenses covered the booth itself—wages, merchandise, and overhead. Much of the other half went to the Veterans Archives Project, the Last Firebase’s independent collection of documents and photographs pertaining to missing soldiers, and to the salary of Patsy Williams, a full-time secretary who compiles that research at the group’s office in North Carolina. The Last Firebase’s chair, Ted Sampley, also publishes the U.S. Veteran Dispatch, an irregularly issued tabloid of independent research into POW/MIA and other military issues. The paper is handed out free at the booth.
“The Firebase has been a staunch supporter of our group’s efforts to fight government and the misinformation they put out,” says Dolores Apodaca Alfond, the national chairperson of the National Alliance of Families for the Return of America’s Missing Servicemen. “At one point, they made a good deal of money, and most of it went back into the POW/MIA cause. But everything’s slowing down now. It’s not that we’re less gung-ho. It’s just that we’re getting older.”
It was the T-shirts that really irked Jan Scruggs. A decade ago, the Last Firebase and numerous other booths were selling POW/MIA-related T-shirts in all colors and sizes for $10 to $15 a pop. These were by far the most popular items and biggest moneymakers on the Mall.
The POW booths’ ability to sell T-shirts had led to the proliferation of all sorts of thinly veiled commercial activity near the Wall. A vendor selling generic D.C. T-shirts on the Mall, for example, could cover himself by, say, sliding “D.C. Statehood Now” material into customers’ bags and—voila!—he could claim he was supporting a cause.
But Scruggs had always imagined the Wall as a sacred place for honoring slain servicemen and healing national wounds—not as a venue for hawking souvenirs.
Scruggs, 50, grew up in Bowie, Md., and after graduating from high school he served with the U.S. Army’s 199th Light Infantry Brigade and received a Purple Heart for his service in Vietnam. After returning home in 1970, he obtained a master’s degree in counseling from American University. While doing graduate school research on Vietnam veterans, Scruggs first envisioned a national memorial inscribed with the names of all Americans who had lost their lives in Vietnam.
Scruggs founded the nonprofit Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund (VVMF) in 1979, and, using $2,800 of his own money, he launched a fundraising effort. Despite numerous controversies surrounding the project, Scruggs raised more than $8 million for a memorial in just three years. By the time the Wall opened, in November 1982, Scruggs had become a national hero.
A decade later, however, Scruggs took on many of his fellow activists when he launched a campaign for the ouster of Mall vendors. In a 1993 guest column in USA Today, Scruggs framed his criticisms of the booths in Old Testament terms, likening the Wall to “a place of worship.”
“The Bible tells us of Jesus overturning the tables of money changers and chasing them out of the temple where they were doing business,” Scruggs wrote. “Jesus was right….[N]o sales should be allowed at a sacred place.”
In 1995, the Park Service, hoping to thin the herd of vendors, banned the sales of T-shirts altogether. Legal battles ensued, until the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia upheld the constitutionality of the T-shirt ban in 1997, ruling that the “very billboard nature of the T-shirt…makes its display a particularly discordant interruption of the park’s tranquility.”
Because of that ruling, it is now illegal for any group to sell T-shirts on the Mall, even during mass demonstrations like the Million Mom March. The only exceptions to the ban are Guest Services kiosks, which display various T-shirts (including ones bearing the Wall’s image) amid an assortment of tourist kitsch such as statuettes and shot glasses. As an exclusive contractor with the federal government, Guest Services, a private, for-profit company, can sell whatever it wants, so long as it contributes its agreed-upon percentage of sales to the government.
The T-shirt ban ultimately forced many of the original POW/MIA booths to shut down. Today, Scruggs, president of the VVMF, now a well-established organization, seems to have resigned himself to the permanence of the three remaining vigils. But he still can’t stand the sight of them.
On a Tuesday afternoon in December, Scruggs is sitting in his spacious second-floor office at the corner of 15th and L Streets NW. His 1990 law degree from the University of Maryland is framed on the wall behind him. Sporting a turtleneck, khakis, and brown loafers, Scruggs exudes mellowness. Perhaps it’s because he still has a severe case of jet lag: He has just returned from a trip to Vietnam, where the VVMF is directing an international effort to clear thousands of unexploded land mines and other ordnance.
These days, the VVMF does a lot more than maintain the Wall. The mine-removal project is evidence of the organization’s high international profile. In the U.S., the VVMF has developed an extensive set of educational materials about the Vietnam War, which the organization regularly distributes to public and private schools.
But although Scruggs obviously has bigger things on his mind today than the POW/MIA booths, he does take a moment to unfurl an enlarged photograph that he believes is evidence of their inappropriateness. The picture shows shovels, boxes, and trash bags strewn around the back of one of the booths on a summer day.
“There it is,” says Scruggs, “a blight on what’s supposed to be one of the most beautiful places in the country.”
Scruggs rejects the possibility that any POWs still survive in captivity in Southeast Asia. In fact, he likens MIA activists’ fervent belief in government conspiracies and cover-ups to a belief in UFOs. In turn, Scruggs’ critics have repeatedly derided him as an activist who went “uptown” after his success with the Wall. Scruggs, of course, denies that characterization, but his dismissive assessment of the men in the booths does have a ring of class snobbery.
“I don’t argue that these guys are hurting anybody,” says Scruggs. “But the thing is that there are a lot of veterans who are now successful doctors and lawyers…and these guys in the booths perpetuate the stereotype of disgruntled veterans. I suppose some of them are down there having a good time. It’s better than working at Wal-Mart.”
Scruggs’ nemesis in the battle of the booths is the Last Firebase’s Ted Sampley. Because Sampley is a natural-born businessman as well as a gifted demonstrator, he is the embodiment of the vigils’ duality. Sampley doesn’t haunt D.C. too much anymore, but his name lingers. It’s on the lips of the guys in the booths, who’ve looked up to him for years. It’s in the grudging respect of the park police who’ve time and again arrested him during demonstrations.
To find Sampley now, you have to drive past Raleigh, N.C., and down a two-lane road that blurs past miles of cotton and tobacco fields. It’s flat country, flatter still in the town of Kinston, population 30,000, where only one building, an apartment complex, stands taller than the steeple of the Queen Street United Methodist Church. On the town’s main drag, next door to Jake’s Surplus Store, is the home office of the Last Firebase and the U.S. Veteran Dispatch. Inside, on a misty Saturday afternoon in late November, Sampley’s ready to give the grand tour.
Sampley, 54, has a mane of long gray-and-brown hair and two thick pouches for eyelids. He speaks with a wood-dry Carolina twang. For years, he’s been telling people that the government’s not doing enough to account for MIAs. Sampley firmly believes that there were live prisoners in Southeast Asia throughout the ’90s. Now, he’s not so sure. But until the government proves they’re dead, he says, “we can’t kill these guys on paper.”
The first floor of the faded two-story building houses Sampley’s printing room. This is the source of the tens of thousands of T-shirts he’s sold over the years. Stacks of POW/MIA T’s, most of them of Sampley’s design, line the ceiling-high shelves. An octopuslike screening machine sits in the back of the room, its many arms suspending the multicolored panels that produce the Last Firebase’s most popular model: the shirt that reads “You are not forgotten.” Since the Park Service ban took effect, the Last Firebase has continued selling these shirts on its Web site and in the pages of the Dispatch.
“These aren’t just pieces of fabric,” says Sampley. “People buy them and wear their message home. It shows that they believe in something. People say we’re making money off people’s emotions. But whose emotions am I preying on—my own?”
Sampley explains by holding up his right arm. He’s wearing a metal bracelet engraved with the name of Robert Owen, an Army officer who went missing in Laos on May 23, 1968. It’s the same type of bracelet that the Last Firebase booth sells—only this one has personal meaning. Owen was the father of Sampley’s ex-wife.
That’s just one of many ways in which the cause and the merchandise are one and the same for Sampley. The T-shirts are another example. In 1991, the VVMF sued Sampley for copyright infringement because he had been selling T-shirts imprinted with pictures of the The Three Servicemen, a statue that stands near the Wall. The statue was dedicated in 1984 in response to many veterans’ requests for a more literal depiction of U.S. soldiers at the memorial. The VVMF and sculptor Frederick Hart, who jointly hold the copyright to the statue, claimed Sampley had illegally profited by using its image. Sampley countered that national memorials can’t be copyrighted.
Scruggs repeatedly urged Sampley to stop making the shirts and tried to settle out of court. But Sampley refused. Finally, in 1993, the plaintiffs won a $359,000 judgment entitling them to seize Sampley’s home and business. To date, they have not done so.
“Thinking on that now, I was just being stubborn,” says Sampley. “It was the biggest mistake of my life.”
Sampley grew up on a tobacco farm not far from here and joined the Army in 1963 at age 17. As a member of the 173rd Airborne Brigade, he was one of the first conventional Army combat soldiers assigned to Vietnam. He spent seven years as a Green Beret studying Viet Cong tactics and later commanded a company. He saw two years of heavy combat in Vietnam and earned four bronze stars, according to official records.
Sampley returned to North Carolina in 1974, opened a pottery store, took some college courses, and generally floundered. He visited the Wall in 1982.
“That’s when I discovered the POW/MIA issue,” says Sampley. “I got energized. When I met others in my situation, I started to think about all these forgotten men.”
Soon he started to frame his life in terms of a battle against the government, the status quo, and even some fellow POW/MIA activists. He started to challenge all three.
“Once I started slinging and people started slinging back, I couldn’t ever stop,” says Sampley. “When you start with a cause, it’s like stepping in quicksand.”
Sampley took over the Last Firebase (then called Homecoming II) in 1986. The same year, he began “truth litigation,” a series of lawsuits seeking the release of U.S. government information on alleged live sightings of POWs.
Sampley took a theatrical approach to civil disobedience. In 1987, he led a group of activists who attempted to deliver hundreds of “care packages” to the Laotian Embassy in D.C. Containing food and medicine, each of the packages was addressed to one of the U.S. servicemen listed as missing in Laos. The following year, he led a group of activists all the way to Thailand’s Mekong River, where they illegally entered Laos to hand out leaflets advertising a $2.5 million reward offer for the return of missing U.S. servicemen. Laotian authorities captured two members of Sampley’s group and held them for more than six weeks. The stunt attracted international publicity.
Sampley has also stirred controversy with his newspaper. As publisher, editor, and primary reporter for the Dispatch, Sampley has targeted all sorts of sacred cows. In December 1992, for example, Sampley published an article attacking Arizona Sen. John McCain, a former Vietnam POW and one of the nation’s most respected war heroes, for his efforts to improve U.S. diplomatic relations with Vietnam. The article, “John McCain: The Manchurian Candidate,” speculated that McCain had been brainwashed by his Communist captors.
The article led to trouble. When Sampley tried to deliver a copy of the paper to McCain’s office, one of the senator’s aides confronted him. Tempers flared, and the two came to blows. Senate security had to break up the scuffle. Sampley later received an assault conviction and a restraining order prohibiting him from going near McCain and his aides.
“That was a mistake,” says Sampley. He still stands by his theory on McCain, though.
Upstairs at the Dispatch building, the tour continues. Sampley takes me down a long hallway to the “Biography Room.” The dingy room almost sags under the weight of a half-dozen enormous file cabinets; all of them are stuffed with files on virtually every soldier who went missing during Vietnam. Many of the oversized folders contain declassified documents, press clippings, and correspondence between family members and the Last Firebase. For each soldier, there’s a lengthy synopsis of where he was stationed, which comrades he served with, the date he was last seen, and so on.
“We built this ourselves,” says Sampley, knocking on a metal shelf. “It’s the most comprehensive collection in the country.”
The room is kind of a mess. Half-empty soda bottles mingle on tables with faded copies of CIA reports and Freedom of Information Act requests. Yet it was in this unlikely setting that Sampley pieced together a mystery that made national headlines.
The story began in May of 1972, when Air Force pilot Michael Blassie’s plane was shot down about 60 miles north of Saigon. Six months later, South Vietnamese troops found a set of six bones near the crash site, along with two ID cards and other personal effects belonging to Blassie. The Department of Defense initially classified the remains as “believed to be” those of Blassie but changed its ruling after available forensic tests seemed to contradict the circumstantial evidence. In 1984, amid pressure to add a set of remains from the Vietnam War to the Tomb of the Unknowns, the Pentagon interred the same set of bones, which had been deemed unidentifiable, in Arlington National Cemetery.
Ten years later, Sampley, using evidence he had gathered himself, theorized that the remains were, in fact, Blassie’s. In a 1994 Dispatch article, Sampley challenged the government to use DNA tests to identify the remains. The challenge went unheeded until the mainstream press legitimized Sampley’s claims: In January 1998, The CBS Evening News not only reported that the identity of the Vietnam War’s unknown soldier was almost certainly known but also suggested that the government had interred the remains despite this knowledge. Later that year, tests proved that the bones were indeed Blassie’s. The incident rekindled many activists’ longstanding suspicions of the government.
And it reaffirmed Sampley’s faith in his mission.
Rewarding moments like that, Sampley says, are what keep him going, not money. Sampley says he draws no salary from the Last Firebase. He supports himself through his printing and other business ventures. He lives in a ramshackle two-bedroom house that sits beside a highway.
“You know, sometimes I think if I’d stayed in construction, I’d be doing pretty well right now,” Sampley says.
He’s vowed to keep the Last Firebase running, however. He’s just not sure what to do next. There are no rallies or hearings or lawsuits on the horizon. “For now,” says Sampley, “all we can do is keep the POW/MIA flag flying up on the Mall.”
It’s over breakfast the following morning that Sampley gives the clearest hint about why he continues to pursue the POW/MIA fight. He’s seated over a plate of eggs and bacon at a joint called King’s Barbecue when he starts describing his activism as a natural response to having been in battle.
“When I came back from the war, I had trouble with authority figures,” he explains. “I had a lot of anger. When I heard people talking about how it was time to get over the war, I thought, How? When you’ve seen human beings all around you reduced to rotting flesh, you can’t just flip a switch and turn things off.”
After midnight, the lights along the Lincoln Memorial’s promenade go out and the last of the park rangers go home. The west end of the Mall becomes cemetery-still—just how Jim Thompson likes it.
Thompson works the Last Firebase’s late shift—10:30 p.m. to 6:30 a.m.—on Sundays and Mondays. This is the time when anything can happen, or nothing at all. You never know who’s liable to show up. But Thompson says it’s the best shift to work if you’re hoping to run into a grieving veteran who needs an ear, someone who’s got a lot of stories swimming in his head. Someone like Thompson himself.
Thompson is 55, but his constant movements make him seem much younger. A black jacket sleeks his thin frame. With only one bulb burning inside the Last Firebase tonight, it’s hard to see much else of him.
He downs a thermos of java for every shift, and it shows. Sentences spill out of him in long streams. He slows down only to put a silent beat between the two syllables of “fuckin’.”
When it’s this cold, Thompson puts up Plexiglas panels to cover the front of the booth. The view through the scuffed panes is blurred and distorted. It’s after 1 a.m. Thompson hasn’t made a sale all night.
During the Vietnam War, Thompson served in the 503rd Airborne Infantry unit and the 173rd Airborne Brigade. While with the 503rd, Thompson participated in 29 combat assaults in a single year. He’s got the documents to prove it.
Thompson has worked for at least a half-dozen different vigil booths since the early ’80s. He started working at the Last Firebase in the early ’90s because he believed Sampley’s was the only remaining organization that attracted true activists.
“I’ve been around,” says Thompson. “There are more crooks, scalawags, and scoundrels involved in the POW/MIA issue than there are true heroes.”
Thompson doesn’t have a regular job, but he receives a monthly disability check from the government. These days, he works on a book. For years, he’s been researching the war, tracking down documents and old photographs. Last spring, he knocked out the first two chapters, in longhand, during his shifts at the Last Firebase. He doesn’t have a title for it yet.
“Right now,” he says, “I’m just afraid of getting to Chapter 6.”
What’s Chapter 6?
“Chapter 6,” says Thompson, “is when I get past the small fights and into the big, brutal battles.”
He’s not sure he can pull it off.
“You’ve got to flash back 35 years, recall all sorts of close-quarters combat in vivid detail, then flash forward 35 years, hold it in your mind, and put it all down on paper,” says Thompson. “That’s hard.”
Thompson says his book will be part war story, part biography. He’s hired a professional writer from Chicago to compose the latter.
“That’s the way I wanted it,” says Thompson. “I mean, who cares what I was doing when I was 13? I want to write about the war.”
When he graduated from high school, Larry Bice wanted a four-speed, a fat wallet, and a job that would foot the bill. But the war changed all that.
Bice is the first to say that he came close to death only a couple of times while serving in the Central Highlands of Vietnam. For most of his yearlong tour of duty, 1968-1969, Bice mainly handled oscilloscopes, not machine guns; his specialty was repairing radio transmitters and receivers.
He never saw a fellow soldier die. But one night, he did have dinner in the mess hall with an Air Force electronics technician, one of his good buddies, about 30 minutes before an enemy rocket blew the guy to pieces.
When he returned to Missouri after the war, Bice retreated into a 9-to-5 routine. He paid no attention to politics and rarely talked about the war. But in November 1982, he saw footage of the Wall’s dedication ceremony on TV. About two weeks later, Bice says, something made him drive to the airport in Kansas City one day after work. As Bice recalls, he purchased a ticket to D.C., arrived late at night, and made his way to the Wall. There, just beyond the entrance to the memorial, he met up with a random group of veterans. Bice talked with them all night and fell asleep under a tree.
Although it would be seven years until he returned to D.C. to start working full time at the Last Firebase, Bice says that first visit to the Wall permanently changed him.
“After coming to D.C., I had a choice,” says Bice. “Go back and push a desk or go with something that brought me out of the shadows and into a movement.”
Today, Bice leads a Spartan existence. He lives in the Last Firebase’s POW/MIA house in Annandale. Once this house was full of traveling veterans and families visiting the Wall. For the last few years, the house has been quiet, save for the handfuls of visitors who come for Veterans Day. Bice’s home is mostly devoid of decorations. The most colorful object in the living room is an award Bice won for his activism from a veterans’ organization. It’s a plastic statuette of a bald eagle. The base broke off a while back.
Most days, Bice sleeps late, does the Last Firebase’s bookkeeping, deposits money into the group’s bank account, returns calls and e-mails, and makes sure to keep the booth’s four propane tanks full. If he can eat at Bennigan’s once a week, he’s happy.
Late one Friday night in December, Bice and I are sitting in the booth. He’s sold $20 of merchandise since midafternoon. Occasionally, passers-by stop and ask where to buy film or coffee. But there’s little to do besides watch the shadows rippling across the Lincoln Memorial’s columns.
A decade ago, Bice says, he would not have had all this down time. Then, he might have spent an entire shift talking with veterans, many of whom would stop by before or after visiting the Wall. Bice, like many other longtime vigil types, says he has helped console hundreds of vets and family members who, shaken or crying, would make their way to the booths in search of camaraderie. Today, those interactions are rare.
“It’s good that people aren’t coming by here as much,” says Bice. “It means that there’s been a lot of healing.”
Bice has a two-year degree in business management and a knack with computers. He’s been thinking about his future a lot recently. He has a business project in the works, a “patriotic” product he hopes to market, but he’s not sure if it will pan out. Either way, Bice can’t imagine leaving the booth behind.
“We’ve put ourselves second for a long time,” says Bice. “And now it’s all caught up with us. If we don’t start doing something for ourselves, we’re going to be old and homeless.”
A few minutes later, three tour buses with Ohio plates pull up on the road in front of the Lincoln Memorial, and dozens of bobbing and whooping teenagers empty into the night. Cameras in hand, they flock up to Abe, scattering into different positions for the perfect shot. For a good 10 minutes, a constellation of cameras flashes on the memorial’s steps.
Afterward, most of the students dash back to their buses or head for the bathrooms. But one figure spots the Last Firebase and walks toward us down two flights of steps. She’s a short blonde, maybe 16, in an oversized letter jacket. After surveying the booth’s goods for a minute, she asks, quizzically, “Do you have any pow-meeyah stuff?”
Bice has heard this peculiar pronunciation more and more in the last few years, suggesting perhaps that young people remote from the war have no idea that the letters form acronyms, not actual words. “Yeah,” he says, pointing to an array of stickers and patches bearing the POW/MIA logo. “Is there something particular you’re looking for?”
“I dunno, just something pow-meeyah,” says the girl. “My boyfriend just loves pow-meeyah stuff.”
After picking over several pins (and sprinting back to the bus to borrow $5 from a friend), she makes her purchase. Bice slides a copy of the Dispatch into the bag, noting that her boyfriend might enjoy reading it. She thanks him and starts back for her bus. She takes only a few steps before turning around.
“Sir,” she asks, walking back to the counter, “are you a Vietnam veteran?”
Bice nods. “Wow!” she exclaims.
The girl fumbles in her coat pocket for a minute, and then smiles at Bice.
“Sir,” she says. “Do you mind if I take your picture?” CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Photographs by Xeriqua Garfinkel.