With this nation's triumph in the Persian Gulf, President Bush has declared, "By God, we've licked this Vietnam syndrome." And maybe as a nation and a military, this is true. But on a personal level, Vietnam lingers. It left empty spots in tens of thousands of families. It changed the people who served there. These soldiers did their duty and returned one by one, not to a hero's welcome but to angry questions about the atrocities of My Lai, the morality of mining Haiphong harbor, the humiliation of the Tet offensive. Inside, they carried their own questions: Was it worth it? Why did some live and others die? Is it possible to come home, only to discover you are lost? Today, these questions remain unanswered, a murky backdrop to fluttering yellow ribbons and jubilant homecomings.
When Laporte disappeared, the military tried to answer some of the questions about him. It conducted an investigation that produced a file several inches thick. Today, it says it has no such record. Yet some who saw that report, and others who talked to the investigators, believe that Laporte survived the jump and may still be alive. According to information that these men consider credible, Laporte was spotted with the North Vietnamese as late as 1975, fully eight years after he vanished.
"I've always thought Laporte would come out, in my heart of hearts," says Lt. Col. John Cole. Now the administrative officer of the personnel management division at Marine Headquarters in Virginia, he was a staff sergeant then and administrative chief of Laporte's unit.
In 1986, United Press International reported that Laporte was one of at least seven U.S. servicemen who, though listed as missing in action or dead in Southeast Asia, had been seen alive since 1974. That was after the government had declared that it had no knowledge of living American POWs or MIAs still there.
Three years after his disappearance, "Laporte, who had a Vietnamese wife and child, was spotted in a Viet Cong camp, but under conditions which indicated he was receiving special treatment," UPI reported. "In 1975, he was seen in a Vietnamese agricultural commune near Hanoi, Quang Phien, and was again seen at another former French internment camp called Ba Vi, or the Frog Pond."
The news account, which received little attention at the time, cited Defense Intelligence Agency documents that UPI said had been provided by several sources. It noted that while the vast majority of the 2,441 Americans then listed as missing and unaccounted for in Southeast Asia were generally agreed to be dead, some were also thought to be "stay behinds" who chose to remain.
The DIA, which is the CIA's counterpart at the Pentagon, disputes the report to this day, but reporter Jim Anderson, a veteran journalist based in Washington, says he stands by the accuracy of his story.
Laporte's family has heard these rumors and reports as well. They do not accept the idea that Laporte, who would now be 46 years old, would have collaborated willingly with the North Vietnamese. Still, they have never quite believed the government's version of his disappearance either.
"We always kind of felt like there was something they weren't telling us," says his stepmother, Sally Laporte. When they asked to learn more, the government sent them polite form letters.
Michael Laporte was not yet 21 years old when he reported for duty in Saigon in June, 1965. Even with a military haircut, he looked as though he belonged in one of the songs that were playing on the radio then, the ones about fast cars and California beaches. However, his childhood in Los Angeles and Florida was not the sort anyone wrote breezy anthems about; after his parents' bitter divorce, he and his loyalties were pulled back and forth by feuding relatives. He lived at various times with his mother, his father, his older half-sister and an aunt and uncle.
"There was always, I think, something in Mike's mind that maybe he didn't belong anywhere," his stepmother says.
Yet his family remembers him as compassionate and almost childlike in his idealism. He had spoken of wanting to become a doctor, and as a hospital corpsman in Da Nang, Laporte spent much of his time inoculating children and passing out soap and other supplies in Vietnamese villages. Laporte studied the culture, the religion, the history and the language of the country. He fell in love with a Vietnamese woman and wrote that they planned to live in Vietnam after the war.
A traitor? Never, says his family.
"Everyone who has a boy in the military thinks he is the best boy on earth. Michael \o7 was\f7 ," says Willard Swanson, the uncle who helped rear Laporte from the time he was 9, when his mother died. "I remember when he was at (Camp) Pendleton, President Kennedy came out to see the troops and to give them a pep talk. He patted Michael on the back. God, he was so proud of that. Wouldn't you be?"