WASHINGTON — For psychologist and university professor Patricia O'Grady, the painful journey from the lecture hall to the picket line began in 1984. That was when she first began questioning the Defense Department's claim that her father was killed by his captors after his jet was shot down over North Vietnam 17 years earlier.
A skilled researcher, O'Grady used her academic training to piece together information about her father, Air Force Maj. John F. O'Grady, from every document she could find. Her breakthrough came two years ago when, with the help of Sen. Robert C. Smith (R-N.H.), she obtained transcripts of interviews conducted by U.S. investigators with Montagnard tribesmen who said they captured her father when he ejected from his jet.
The transcripts came as a shock. The Defense Department had told her that her father was shot and wounded immediately after his capture and died within hours. But according to the transcripts, O'Grady's captors said "over and over that they did not shoot him . . . , that they were not even armed and that he was in good (physical) condition when they turned him over" to the North Vietnamese.
Finally deciding that only in Vietnam would she learn the truth, O'Grady went to Hanoi last March. There she won permission from the Vietnamese to visit the mountainous area where her father was captured. She located the same tribesmen who had been interviewed by the investigators, and said they told her that they remembered the incident clearly because he was the only pilot they had captured.
There, she said, she uncovered "material evidence" to convince her that her father not only had survived but could still be a captive somewhere in Vietnam today.
Now O'Grady, who holds a doctorate in psychology from the University of Maryland, is taking time off from her teaching duties at the University of South Florida to stand on a picket line in front of the White House. She is angrily demanding the truth that POW-MIA activists are convinced is being withheld from them.
"For a long time, the Pentagon characterized us as emotionally unstable people who cannot accept the truth," she said in a quavering voice. "I am prepared to accept that my father is dead. . . . But what I am not prepared to accept are the lies."
Along with several hundred other activists, O'Grady and her husband, a former POW, are here to attend the annual meetings of two POW-MIA family groups, the National League of Families and the National Alliance of Families.
Both groups cling to a conviction--largely discounted by the Pentagon--that hundreds of POWs were secretly withheld by Hanoi after all other Vietnam war prisoners were repatriated in March, 1973. But while it has often criticized the way the POW-MIA issue has been handled, the League rejects the theory embraced by the more conspiratorial-minded Alliance that successive Administrations have covered up evidence that many POWs could still be in captivity.
Despite their differences, the poignant paradox of hope and despair that pervades both annual gatherings has been heightened this year by two new events: the discovery of what is purported to be a secret Russian document indicating that more than 600 POWs were never released by the Vietnamese and, more recently, President Clinton's decision to drop Washington's longstanding opposition to new development loans for Hanoi from the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.
A senior White House official, Deputy National Security Adviser Samuel Berger, defended that decision in a speech to the League convention Friday. He publicly confirmed for the first time that Clinton dropped the U.S. objections to the loans because he knew that Japan, France and other members would have outvoted Washington at the next IMF meeting and proceeded with the loans.
"It became clear that the international community was ready to move ahead over our objections . . . and that the United States would have lost all advantage with the Vietnamese," Berger said.
But Berger also pledged that Clinton will do no more to ease the U.S. trade embargo against Vietnam, or to normalize relations with its former enemy, until he is satisfied that Hanoi is doing all it can to account for more than 2,200 Americans still officially listed as missing.
Vietnam has stepped up its cooperation on the POW-MIA issue in recent months. But its efforts are still "not sufficient to warrant changes in our trade embargo or further steps in U.S.-Vietnamese relations," Berger said.
Berger also said that Assistant Secretary of State Winston Lord, as head of a high-level delegation in Hanoi this week, is delivering a "tough" message that Vietnam's cooperation so far on the POW-MIA issue is "welcome, but not enough."
Specifically, the United States wants more progress in four specific areas: The return of servicemen's remains, the resolution of "discrepancy" cases involving soldiers known to have been captured but never accounted for, the fate of MIAs in Laos and the release of all POW-MIA documents in Hanoi.
The family members, who responded with only lukewarm applause, clearly remained skeptical of Berger's assurances, however.