Each day it gets harder for Pat Carey to get up in the morning.
But as she pulls herself from her sleeping bag and remembers the American soldiers missing in Southeast Asia, the rigors of fasting become easier to endure.
"Hell, when I think of what the veterans are going through, I think I've got it easy," the 40-year-old Hawthorne resident said.
Carey, a former rape crisis counselor and campaign manager for two Hawthorne city councilmen, says she will fast for a total of 44 days to draw attention to the estimated 2,400 American soldiers listed as missing in action and who Carey and others believe may still be prisoners in Southeast Asia.
She began her vigil Oct. 18 in an 8-by-10-foot tent in the shade of a tree in Hawthorne Memorial Park, a place better known for pickup basketball games than political statements.
"This country has an obligation to bring those men back at any cost," said Carey, who hopes that her fast will help spur the Reagan Administration to act on the matter.
Carey has had only distilled water with lemon or lime juice for almost two weeks and says she will not eat anything until Nov. 30, the day Gino Casanova of Kent, Wash., is scheduled to complete a 66-day fast in Washington, D.C., to push for action on the 66 MIAs from the state of Washington.
Carey has been concerned about the fate of Vietnam MIAs since 1973 when the city of Hawthorne dedicated the "freedom tree" under which she sleeps to Col. William Thompson, a resident of neighboring Lawndale, who has been missing since he was shot down over Laos on Aug. 1, 1968.
She attended the ceremony and since that day has worn a bracelet engraved with Thompson's name and the date he was shot down.
"I'm sacrificing very little," she said. "The veterans went off for me and sacrificed their lives for me. . . . My God, they are my brothers."
Tom Quintana, public information officer for Hawthorne, said that as far as he knows this is the first time anyone has staged a fast in the park for MIAs or prisoners of war. Hawthorne will honor MIAs in a Veterans Day ceremony next month.
The city granted Carey a permit to camp in the park with the proviso that she have at least one other adult with her at all times, both for protection and in case she suffered ill effects from her fast.
"I came over and talked to her for about two seconds and fell in love with her," said Robert McDevitt, 39, a Vietnam veteran who is one of a cadre of six regulars who take turns staying with her.
"When I heard what she was doing, I thought if she has enough guts to do what she's doing, I've got enough guts to sit here and make sure no one bothers her," said McDevitt, an unemployed laborer who spent two years in combat on naval gunboats off South Vietnam.
Carey's boyfriend, Mark Stacey, 38, a firefighter from Ventura, has taken vacation time from his job to stay with her. And several other friends make a point of stopping by regularly.
"Literally hundreds of people have come by to ask what I'm doing here," said Carey, who along with her friends is circulating a petition to present to the North Vietnamese delegation to the United Nations on behalf of the missing men.
"We've collected about 300 signatures since we've been out here," Stacey said.
Carey said she has not been bothered by passers-by and most people have been friendly and supportive of her cause.
"The gang members around here have adopted me as their mom," said Carey, who spends most of her time reading and talking to friends inside her tent, which she cleans every morning.
She has been comfortable most of the time but has been bothered by the cold, she said, shivering as the wind blew through her tent Tuesday afternoon.
She said that her friends are trying to find a battery-operated portable heater for her to use at night.
During her fast, she has continued to smoke, going through nearly two packs of cigarettes a day.
She said she prepared for the fast by getting her weight up to 153 pounds; she has lost about 10 pounds since she started her vigil.
She takes a sponge bath and washes her hair every day, and uses a portable lavatory set up inside the tent.
Carey said that so far, she has not had any serious difficulties in connection with the fast. But headaches that began three days after she started her fast are becoming more severe, and she suffers heartburn as a result of not eating.
She said she has been taking it easy since the first week when she suffered heart palpitations.
She said she woke up one morning, reached for a cigarette and began moving around in her normal fashion.
"I guess I moved around too fast, because all of a sudden my heart started palpitating and I got the shakes," she said.
Although she recovered after a few minutes, Carey has been mindful of the incident ever since.
"Now I take everything real slow," Carey said.
Friends of Casanova, who conducted a similar 51-day protest fast last year, have warned her that as she continues to fast she may also experience ringing in her ears and continued dizziness.
Carey said that her vigil has attracted dozens of people each day, who ask questions and offer to help.
The inside of her tent is covered with messages of encouragement written mostly by local gang members and Vietnam veterans.
One of her biggest supporters is Rick Libbey, 44, a former Marine who now works for Amtrak and stops by after work every day to check on Carey. He says he is motivated partly because of lingering anger over the way he was treated when he returned from Vietnam in 1969.
"We had an awful lot to say when we got back, but no one listened," said Libbey, who struggled to hold back tears. "A lot of us needed this," he said. "The war won't be over until we get all our men back."
Carey said that she and Casanova may decide to extend their cross-continent vigils past Nov. 30.
"If our goal of getting recognition for the POWs/MIAs is not fulfilled, we will continue," health permitting, she said.