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Ex-prisoner cages himself in honor of Viet POWs

SHARE Ex-prisoner cages himself in honor of Viet POWs

Like 700,000 other Americans, Mike Benge spent much of Saturday on the Mall. But he wasn't there for the Fourth of July fireworks or the concerts.

Instead, Benge celebrated the holiday cooped up in a 6-by-8-foot bamboo cage, clad in black pajamas like those he wore as a prisoner of war three decades ago.An Agency for International Development civilian staffer then and now, Benge, 62, relived his five years of privation and torture to honor soldiers still missing in Southeast Asia.

But he also wanted to educate a new generation about a small band of heroes for whom duty, honor and country is more than a patriotic slogan - the Vietnam POWs.

"Most young people who come here know about the dead whose names are on the (Vietnam Veterans Memorial) wall," he says. "But they don't know anything about us."

Benge and his compatriots came home 25 years ago, battered and broken by an average four years of incarceration. A quarter-century later, most of the elite aviators and enlisted grunts alike are faring remarkably well.

"Our divorce rate is higher, and there are more physical problems than the average American," says Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who spent five years in Hanoi captivity. "But spiritually, I think we're in fine mettle."

The youngest ex-POW is 47 now, the oldest 76. They live in 45 states and three foreign countries: China, Germany and Italy. Two-thirds resumed their careers, and 22 became generals or admirals. A handful - four or five, POW groups estimate - still are on active duty.

While some were grounded for medical reasons, many aviators climbed back into cockpits.

Several now fly jumbo jets for five commercial airlines. Others pursued new careers from scratch and are physicians, lawyers and politicians.

Everett Alvarez, the first pilot shot down in 1964, was deputy director of the Peace Corps and the Veterans Administration.

Two became U.S. senators - McCain and former Sen. Jeremiah Denton, R-Ala., - and two were elected to the House. Indiana Lt. Gov. Joe Kernan is an ex-POW. So is the chairman of United Way of Chicago and Federal Trade Commissioner Orson Swindle.

Retired Vice Adm. James Stockdale, a Medal of Honor winner for leading the resistance at the "Hanoi Hilton" camp, was president of the Citadel and has written two books. He's best known as Ross Perot's ill-fated running mate in the 1992 presidential election.

And in an ironic twist that many POWs say brought closure to their captivity, one of their own, former Rep. Douglas (Pete) Peterson, D-Fla., was named the first U.S. ambassador to Vietnam in 1997.

Of the 660 U.S. servicemen repatriated by North Vietnam, 45 have died: two by suicide and the vast majority of the rest from heart disease.

"The most common medication I prescribe is an aspirin every day" to help ward off heart attacks, says Navy Capt. Mike Ambrose, whose Pensacola, Fla., medical unit has administered physicals to about 450 of the former POWs.

Why have they fared relatively well?

McCain thinks the "incredibly tempering experience" of unrelenting physical and psychological torture "allowed us to evaluate ourselves, to be tested and to be much clearer about our goals in life."