Story by Chris Graham
David Harker knows he shouldn’t be here.
“Most of the prisoners that returned home, over 600, were repatriated when they said the Paris Peace Accord. Most of them were pilots shot down over North Vietnam. About 150 or so of us were captured in the South. And only about a third or a fourth of us were infantry soldiers captured on the ground,” said Harker, who was taken as a prisoner of war in Vietnam in January 1968 and was held captive for five long years, including stints in the infamous Hanoi Hilton.
He was held, he said, basically as a human bargaining chip.
“During that period of the Tet Offensive and just prior to that, they had orders to take people, bargaining power. That’s the only reason that I lived the day that I did,” Harker said.
“They ambushed us, and right away, only six of us survived out of our platoon of people. They killed the commanding officer, killed the RTOs, the radio operators. Killed my platoon leader and my platoon sergeant,” Harker said.
“Bullets were flying around, people dying. They were attacking us, air assaulting us, right on top of us. We pushed them back, repelled them. Then got pinned down again. We tried to get back to our CP group, and we shortened the distance between us and them, but we got pinned down again and taken prisoner,” Harker said.
Three decades following his return from the jungle, Harker has engaged himself in a pitched battle of an entirely different sort. The former POW is the chair of the Veterans for Kaine effort that is working to get Democratic Party gubernatorial candidate Tim Kaine elected governor.
Harker said he supports Kaine because the sitting lieutenant governor is “not about himself.”
“He’s about other people. That’s pretty obvious when you look at the fact that at 22 years old, while in law school, he denied himself and took up his cross and went down to Honduras. He said, ‘Look, I need some direction in life.’ That’s a sign of maturity. That was a defining moment in his life,” Harker told The Augusta Free Press during a recent visit to Staunton.
“He saw how Third World people live. And I was in Vietnam, so I know how people in the Third World live. It gives you as an American a different perspective on life. We’ve got enough problems here that we can deal with. We don’t have to go to a Third World country. But his willingness to go seek this out, that’s what stands out to me,” Harker said.
Harker said the Veterans for Kaine committee has been able to make some inroads into the traditionally Republican Party-leaning military-veteran voting bloc.
“I think on a federal level, yeah, Republicans probably do get more attention, because they are seen as being tough on terrorism, and fighting the war on terror. I believe the Democrats are just as tough, just maybe have a different approach,” Harker said.
“I think the Republicans are finding out that you can’t simply send the U.S. military into Iraq, and you win. Unfortunately, in Vietnam, it didn’t happen that way. Sometimes I think we haven’t learned the lessons of the past. How do you fight terrorism, guerilla warfare, and how do you make a people free?” Harker said.
“In Vietnam, we expended a lot of lives and money and energy, in that effort to let those people be free, and let them be democratic. The people I was prisoner with, and I was a prisoner with some South Vietnamese troops, they appreciated that. But the South Vietnamese people themselves never took up the fight. The indigenous people have to take up the fight. We’ll support you, but you have to fight. You know all the issues, you know all the problems. You’re the one that has to do it,” Harker said.
Just like Harker had to be the one to fight for his own life in the jungles of Vietnam.
“What got me through was I would think about all the people who helped me get to where I was in life. My youth athletic coaches, Sunday-school teachers, schoolteachers. My high-school football coach. My baseball coach. All of them volunteered their time. If you’re teaching public school, you’re practically volunteering your time, considering what you get paid. The spirit of community helped me get through,” Harker said.
“I tell people, we’re tough militarily, but our real strength is in our morality. Our ability to provide justice and equality for everybody,” Harker said.