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Tuesday, Jul 29, 2014
Military News

Altman: Destin mail carrier has bracelet of ex-POW in Westchase

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When Paul Wright was 11, his uncle gave him a gift — a bracelet with the name of an American prisoner of war. It was one of thousands made to show support for the POWs of the Vietnam War.

“My uncle was selling these bracelets for the vets, to help the POWs,” says Wright. “He let us pick them out of a bag, me and my buddies.”

Wright pulled out a bracelet with the name of Air Force Col. Ken Fisher.

Now, four decades later, Wright, a mail carrier from Destin, wants to return that gift.

Not to his uncle, but to Fisher.

“I’ve been doing this for years, trying to find this guy,” says Wright. “Then your page came up and I said let me give this Howard Altman guy a call.”

Last year, I wrote a story about how Fisher, from Westchase, and Lee Ellis had been captured by the North Vietnamese and sent to the infamous “Hanoi Hilton,” the prison camp that once held Arizona Sen. John McCain, among others.

Fisher was the commander of an F-4 Phantom. Ellis, a first lieutenant, was with him when the jet crashed Nov. 7, 1967. For 62 months, the men lived through sheer hell.

Wright, apparently, has plenty of company.

“When we first came home, we had about 900 of them,” says Fisher.

“We have about 150 of them in a shoebox in the closet,” says Maggie, his wife of 48 years.

The Fishers say they respond to each person with a letter.

“It’s always a surprise and a pleasure when they arrive,” says Fisher. “We thank them for wearing them.”

Fisher says that he and Ellis were prisoners for years before they even knew about the bracelets. They learned about them from “a new shootdown,” a pilot who was captured sometime in January 1971.

“A new shootdown was a wonderful thing for us,” Fisher says with a laugh. “Being there for three, four, five years, we were starved for information.”

The long-timers learned a lot from the new guys, says Fisher, including the latest fashion trends.

“We learned about miniskirts,” says Fisher. “We joked that by the time we got out, they’d be maxiskirts. And we were right.”

Fisher says that by speaking to the new shootdowns over a wall between rooms — a communication that would result in vicious beatings when they were discovered — he also learned about the Paris peace talks and a group of three American women who met with the Vietnamese to talk about the prisoners.

“He told me that one of women shook their fist in the face of the Vietnamese,” says Fisher. “I told the new shootdown ‘that sounds like something Maggie would do.’ And guess what, it was her.”

Fisher says this was also the way he found out that back home, Americans cared enough about the POWs’ plight to purchase bracelets bearing their names. “That was tremendous,” says Fisher, adding that the news offered a psychological lift in a place where he was regularly beaten down mentally and physically.

As it would turn out, back home in Baldwin, N.Y., Fisher’s sister was running her own bracelet op out of her house.

“She was pretty laid back,” says Fisher. “But after I got shot down, she became a tiger, giving speeches, going to universities. She got pretty involved.”

He laughs recalling one time, after his release from prison camp, his brother-in-law got mad at her.

“One Friday she called and said ‘Carl is really mad at me,’” says Fisher. “I asked why. She said, ‘I have $40,000 in the freezer.”

Fisher says his sister and her family became so involved in the bracelet movement that they couldn’t keep up with all the envelopes containing checks and cash from people wanting bracelets. Unable to get to the bank one Friday afternoon, Fisher’s sister stored the money in the freezer until the bank reopened.

Bracelets still come to the house, says Fisher.

“We had one about three months ago,” he says. “We got three or four last year.”

While touched that people care enough to send them, Fisher says he has a suggestion for anyone who still has one.

“I usually tell people to keep it,” he says. “If you are not at least 45 or 50, you have no idea what happened in Vietnam. Use these as a teaching tool to show how America can become unified and do good.”

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As much as I love words, I know that sometimes, only a picture can tell the story.

Especially when it comes to war.

Beginning last week and running through July 14, you can see some powerful war photographs for yourself at the St. Petersburg Museum of History.

The American Soldier, a Photographic Tribute, is an exhibition of 116 photographs, from the Civil War to the War in Iraq. It opened March 18.

The show “is a dramatic exhibition of photographs that captures the essence of American soldiering over more than 150 years, ever since the birth of photography when the camera became a notebook to history,” say organizers.

The 116 enlarged photographs cover America at war from the Civil War, Spanish American War, Boxer Rebellion, World War I, World War II, Korea, Vietnam, Gulf War, Afghanistan, and to the streets of Baghdad. It “captures the danger and the frustration, the humor and the beauty, the camaraderie, the death and the victory that the American soldier encountered,” organizers say.

The idea to bring the traveling exhibit to St. Petersburg is the brainchild of retired Army Maj. Scott Macksam.

Macksam says he first came across the exhibit while on assignment three years ago to Fort Knox.

“I stumbled upon the exhibit there,” he says. “Being on the board of directors at the St. Petersburg museum, I thought we should have it here.”

The museum, which spent about $20,000 on improvements to accommodate the exhibit, had to wait two years before landing it, says Macksam.

For more information, contact the museum at info@spmoh.org or call (727) 894-1052.

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Speaking of Vietnam, here’s an interesting event Saturday, March 29.

The Veterans Memorial Park and Museum Committee Inc. along with the Veterans Council of Hillsborough County Inc. will hold the annual Welcome Home Vietnam Veterans Day ceremony at the park, 3602 U.S. Highway 301 North, Tampa.

This annual event honors all those who served in Vietnam, “including a special remembrance for those who did not make it back,” according to Walt Raysick, immediate past president of the Hillsborough County Veterans Council. Featured speakers will talk about the 50th anniversary of the Vietnam War, says Raysick.

Aside from the ceremony, the James A. Haley VA Hospital mobile bus will be on site, offering services for veterans.

For more information contact Raysick, at (813) 653-4924 or wraysick@verizon.net.

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There’s another interesting event on the 29th.

It’s not a military event per se, but the name speaks for itself.

The 20th annual General H. Norman Schwartzkopf Memorial Sporting Clays Classic to benefit The Children’s Home kicks off Saturday at Tampa Bay Sporting Clays, 10514 Ehren Cutoff, Land ‘O Lakes.

Over the last 20 years, the event has raised more than $1 million for The Children’s Home, organizers say. For $25, participants get breakfast, complimentary ammunition, a full round of clays, lunch and an awards ceremony. By participating in our Card Draw, you can also win fabulous prizes including shotguns, vacations, airline tickets and more. For more information, call (813) 855-4435 or click here.

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The Pentagon announced no new casualties last week.

There have been 2,302 U.S. service members killed in support of Operation Enduring Freedom, the nation’s longest war.

haltman@tampatrib.com

(813) 259-7629

@haltman

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