Alone With a Ghost

Carol Collins’ one true love was killed Vietnam—or so she thought. Twenty years later, a mysterious photograph has turned her life upside down.

March 1992By Comments

THE INSIDE OF CAROL COLLINS’ house in San Antonio is mostly unexceptional. Her walls are plain, her furniture is functional, her blinds are shut against the outside light. All that is remarkable are the photographs—dozens of them, all of one man: her ex-husband, Donald Gene Carr, a United States Army captain declared missing in action during the Vietnam War. Carol’s bookshelves are lined with pictures of him. Her albums are filled with snapshots of him. Her coffee table is stacked with articles about him. Twenty years after his disappearance, Donald Carr is everywhere.

On the credenza in her living room are two photographs that have become the focus of Carol’s attention. One shows a young and robust man, his hair blackish and thick, his eyes tilted upward, his mouth in an expectant half-smile. This is Donald Carr at 23, on his wedding day in 1962. The other shows a man clearly past middle age, wrinkled and jowly, with a loose, disheveled grin. Purportedly, this is Donald Carr at 50, photographed two years ago at a Laotian prison camp. You might not think the men look alike unless you examine the two pictures together. Then uncanny similarities begin to emerge: the same protruding jug ears, the same laugh lines extending down to the same squared-off jaw.

Until the second photo surfaced last May, fifty-year-old Carol Collins had accepted that Donald Carr was dead. It had been more than two decades since she had divorced him. But one look at the picture changed everything. Painful emotions resurfaced. “It was like, if I don’t say it’s Don, then I don’t have to think about it,” she says, “But I couldn’t stop thinking about it.” She hid the picture in a side pocket of her purse and did not show it to anyone. But when she was alone, she would pull it out and compare it to the wedding photo, trying to imagine the physical effects of time on her young husband’s face.

Nine months later, Carol still doesn’t know the truth about Don. Initially, Pentagon officials gave her hope. Based on the second photo, they announced that his was the most promising prisoner of war case since the end of the Vietnam War. Then, last December, these same officials reversed themselves, announcing on the basis of new information that the photo was a fraud. Yet no amount of bureaucratic back and forth can change the way Carol has come to feel about Don. Her attachment to him is stronger than ever. The prospect that he’s still alive has reawakened long-smothered feelings—and thrown her life into turmoil.

The mysterious case of Donald Carr is only a part of the rekindled national controversy over the fate of 2,267 Americans missing in Southeast Asia. According to the U.S. government, the last known prisoners were returned by the North Vietnamese after the negotiated peace of March 1973. MIA and POW activists have always disputed the government’s position, and in the past six months their skepticism has gained worldwide credibility, thanks to a stream of puzzling evidence—from reports of POW sightings to testimony by Soviets who claimed to have interrogated Americans years after the last ones were supposedly freed. So much confusion surrounds the subject that the U.S. Senate recently established a committee to look into the claims.

Pushing hardest for those investigations are the families of the missing servicemen. Although they suffer perhaps the most damaging emotional effects of the POW experience, their pain is often overlooked. They are confined to a life spent sitting by the phone, waiting for scraps of information. For them the Vietnam War has never really ended.

No one more clearly illustrates this torment than Carol Collins. Nothing in her life has been the same since she laid eyes on the photo. She can have no peace of mind until she learns the truth. “If they can produce him, I’ll know within thirty seconds if it’s Don or not,” she says. “The trouble is, I just don’t know who to believe anymore.”

ON JULY 6, 1971, DON CARR and Air Force First Lieutenant Daniel Thomas were flying a classified mission over southern Laos. From the back seat of the OV-10 Bronco, Carr monitored radio frequencies along a major route of the Ho Chi Minh Trail; Thomas piloted the plane. Five months before, after deciding the Viet Cong supply lines should be severed, President Nixon ordered incursions into Laos. The region that Carr and Thomas were surveying was mountainous, dotted by gardens and streams. The weather was overcast and gray.

According to records declassified in 1975, Carr and Thomas took off from an airfield at Nakhon Phanom, Thailand, at 1:20 p.m., flying above the cloud bank at about nine thousand feet. At 1:40 p.m. Thomas made radio contact with the control center. At 3:30 p.m. he radioed again to say that he was in his target area but that the weather was “unworkable.” That was the last anyone heard of the plane or its passengers. A squadron searched the area for four days but picked up no radio signals and found no crash site—only an endless jungle canopy that could easily have hidden pieces of wreckage.

When Carol Collins received word that Don was missing, she was struggling to come to terms with their failed relationship. They had met in 1962, alongside the swimming pool at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio; six months later they were married. At the time, Carol was a 20-year-old flight attendant for Trans-Texas Airways and Don was a 23-year-old soldier. His enlistment was scheduled to be up in a year, when he planned to finish his college degree and get a job as a teacher or a football coach. But one day in the spring of 1963, Carol recalls, Don came home and announced that he’d been accepted for Officer Candidate School.

For Carol, being the wife of a career officer meant periods of prolonged separation from her husband. When Don went off for six months of training at Fort Benning, Georgia, he thought it would be better for Carol to stay behind. But she insisted she wanted to join him. She moved into a trailer park near the base, even though they could see each other only once a week. In 1964, they moved to Monterey, California, where Don was stationed at Fort Ord. There, he and Carol adopted a baby boy, whom they named Donald Gene Carr, Jr.

In December 1965, Don volunteered for the elite Army Special Forces, better known as the Green Berets. At Fort Bragg, North Carolina, he trained in guerrilla warfare; Carol and “Donny” returned to San Antonio. Then Don was sent to the Canal Zone in Panama. It took five months for him to obtain Army clearance for his family to join him—yet when they arrived, they stayed less than a month. One morning, Carol says, Don came home while Donny was taking his first steps. “Donny turned around and said, ‘Daddy,’ and walked toward him,” she remembers. “Don had tears in his eyes. I fixed him lunch—and that’s when he said he’d volunteered for Vietnam. He had to be out of there in ten days.”

In Vietnam, Don was a Special Forces A-team commander, training the indigenous Montagnard hill tribes to break up infiltration routes from the North. At her apartment complex back in San Antonio, Carol would get together with the other Army wives and watch the evening news. Some of the women would talk about their husbands and worry when they heard that a particular site had come under attack. But because Carol knew little about what Don was doing, she felt she had nothing to say.

Even before Don’s yearlong tour of duty had ended, he had extended it six more months. It was 1967. Soon after, Carol made plans to meet him for a week of R&R in Hawaii—but Don wrote to say he wanted to join his enlisted men in Australia instead. “It absolutely broke my heart,” she says, “and then I was madder than hell.” She threatened to leave him if he did not meet her, and he gave in. It had been ten months since they had been together, but there was no joyful reunion, no tears on the tarmac. The war had changed Don. He was withdrawn and introspective. At their room in the Ilikai Hotel, he would take a drink out on the lanai and stare at the ocean. “He said there wasn’t anything he could tell me about Vietnam,” Carol recalls, “but it was unlike anything I could imagine.”

After his first tour, Don came back to Fort Benning to attend nine months of training at the Advanced Officers School. Again, he didn’t want Carol and Donny to join him, but again, she insisted. By then, however, their marriage was in shambles. Don was drinking heavily, sometimes staying out all night. He was detached from his family. When Carol got sick and underwent emergency surgery, he didn’t even visit her in the hospital. Later, Carol tried to talk him into counseling, but he refused. She was furious. She believed he had betrayed not only their marriage vows but also the responsibilities he had assumed by adopting a son. As he left for his second tour in Vietnam, Carol said she wanted to end the marriage. He begged her to stay with him, but she was adamant. They were divorced the following April.

Seven months later, Carol married Joel Collins, the owner of a heating and air conditioning company in Houston. He was the opposite of Don: warm, bighearted, demonstrative. And he gave Carol the attention that Don hadn’t. “He wanted to put me in his pocket and take me everywhere with him,” Carol says. Even though Joel wanted to be a father to Donny, Carol wouldn’t let him adopt the boy. That Christmas, when Don came to Houston to visit Donny, Carol says, “I took one look at him and knew I’d made the most horrible mistake in my life.” In a flash, it became clear how much she still loved him. While Don took Donny to the Galleria, Carol spent the day in tears.

In July 1971, Carol received the telegram saying Don’s plane had disappeared. She was sent a few photos of herself and Donny that had been on Don’s wall, his fatigues and T-shirts, a box of medals and insignias, and his torn and sweaty green beret. Carol was in torment—grieving for Don, yet on some level still so angry at him that she half-believed he might have accepted a secret long-term assignment for the CIA, deliberately dropping out of sight and abandoning his family.

The next few years were an enormous struggle, but in time, Carol became assured in a way she could never have anticipated. She made money in San Antonio real estate, opened a chain of gift stores, and raised her son. She reconciled herself to the fact that Don was dead. When Donny began having trouble in school, a child psychiatrist told Carol the problem was possibly related to the unresolved status of his father. So in March 1976, Carol wrote to the Army and asked that Don be declared killed in action. After reviewing Don’s file, the Army issued a presumptive finding of death—the best it could do since no body had been recovered. At last, Carol thought, she had put her life back together.

A month later, on a business trip to Beaumont, Joel Collins choked to death in a restaurant.

“THIS IS NOT DON CARR,” CAROL Collins told the man who had just handed her a snapshot. “There is no way in the world. Don was handsome. He was an athlete. He was well built.” It was May 1991. Carol was sitting in the lobby of a San Antonio hotel with Lorne Lemieux, a Delaware businessman and POW activist. The man in the photo, Lemieux had told her, was possibly her former husband. Pictured was a white male in his early fifties, wearing a teal-colored knit shirt. His face was tanned and wrinkled; his hair was thinning. There was a whitish scar running from the top of his forehead down to his right eyebrow. In the background was a series of black vertical metal bars—not a cage necessarily, but perhaps some type of stockade or enclosure. The man did not resemble Don, Carol observed, but he did look an awful lot like Don’s father.

From Lemieux, Carol heard for the first time about Jack Bailey, a highly decorated fighter pilot who had retired from the Air Force in 1969. Bailey had become one of the most controversial POW trackers in the world, praised for his devotion to the cause but criticized for his unorthodox methods. On one of his recent trips to Southeast Asia, Lemieux reported, Bailey had met with “Mr. X,” a Pathet Lao official who was disenchanted with the communist regime. Through Mr. X, Bailey had acquired the alleged photo of Donald Carr.

Lemieux asked Carol for pictures of her former husband for a forensic analysis. Carol went home and pulled out all her old photographs. “When I looked at the wedding pictures, then I could see it,” she says. She crawled into bed with the photographs and cried. For the next month, she kept the photo hidden. But in early June, she began to show it to family members. One by one, they all insisted the man looked just like Don. As each person affirmed the resemblance, she allowed herself to believe a little more. By mid-June, she wanted more information.

As Bailey would later tell Carol, Mr. X had agreed to use his status to enter a prison camp in Laos, about sixty miles from the spot where Donald’s plane disappeared. Mr. X took along a few items that Bailey had given him: an inexpensive watch, a blue-green T-shirt, some tennis shoes, and a camera. Mr. X came back from the village with a roll of film still in the camera. When Bailey developed the film, he found the photo that Lemieux gave to Carol Collins in May and a second one that she later received, showing the same man in a crouched position.

Bailey said Mr. X had spoken to this man, who was an American. The man told Mr. X his name was Gar. Mr. X said the man was simpleminded—“dinky dow,”in Laotian, meaning mentally impaired—but he did not know whether the man had been in an accident or tortured and beaten. The man was living as the camp’s “pet pig.” According to Mr. X, the man had pleaded, “Someone help me.”

The story transformed Carol Collins’ life. If the man in the photo could be Don Carr, how could she not devote herself to finding out for sure? It was as if she was traversing some kind of emotional barrier. When she reached the other side, however, there would be no turning back. She could no longer ignore the feelings that had haunted her for decades, the questions about what had gone wrong in her marriage. What emerged was a profound sense of guilt, as though she had somehow caused Don’s death. Now it seemed to Carol that she had not been as sympathetic to his wartime experiences as she should have been. Maybe he was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. He needed help, she thought, and instead she divorced him. Then, when his plane disappeared, she turned her back on him. She asked for him to be declared KIA when perhaps he was languishing in a prison camp. For Carol, rescuing Don became a way to undo the past, to make everything right.

Suddenly, she had to find the man in the photo. She began writing to every federal agency that might possibly have information on Don.  Many documents that had previously been classified were now available. She began to learn about Don’s status, about his mission, about the search for his plane. Meanwhile, the photos of Don were sent to three forensic labs. One determined that the men were the same; the other two couldn’t reach a conclusion. In July, the photos were released to the press and immediately championed by the MIA/POW movement as proof that the government was involved in a cover-up about missing servicemen. That same week the Senate established its committee.

IN LATE AUGUST, CAROL COLLINS flew to Bangkok with Bailey and Lemieux. Lemieux paid her way. The plan was for Bailey to contact Mr. X and establish communication with Gar. Carol had fantasies of trekking through the jungle to a remote prison camp and flinging her arms around her former husband. “I knew nothing,” she says. “I was blind, in a fog. I was going to try and get Don back.” But Bailey could not make contact with Mr. X—he had dropped out of sight. Bailey did take her to meet U.S. officials and a Laotian general, but they had no specific information about Don. The six-day trip was a fiasco.

In mid-September, a U.S.-Laotian team traveled to southern Laos. But it was monsoon season; the roads were muddy and impassable. According to a government report, the Americans met with an official in the provincial capital of Muang Mai who convinced them that travel outside the capital was unfeasible. To U.S. officials intent on normalizing relations with Southeast Asian countries, the trip was a diplomatic breakthrough. To Carol it was a sham: “They went over there to bullshit with Lao officials and thank them for their help.”

In October, a Department of Defense team traveled to Thailand, this time accompanied by Bailey. Defense Secretary Dick Cheney later testified before Congress that after a week in Bangkok, Bailey failed to produce his informant and could not lead the U.S. team to the prison camp. In his own subsequent testimony, Bailey accused the Defense Department team of setting an impossibly tight deadline, then lounging in the Imperial Hotel while he and his associate dashed around trying to set up contacts.

Who was Carol to trust—the U.S. government or Jack Bailey? Neither was turning out to be reliable. In late November, Robert Sheetz, the chief of the Pentagon’s special office for POWs and MIAs, announced before a gathering of cadets at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colorado, that the government was on the verge of discrediting the purported Carr photograph. “We found this individual,” he told the cadets. “It is not Don Carr, unfortunately.” At home in San Antonio, Carol had heard about his comments and waited for a phone call from the government with the bad news, but it never came. After two weeks, she contacted Sheetz’s deputy and was assured that the Pentagon had no reason to doubt the photo’s authenticity. Then two weeks later, Carol was called by another DOD official who said the Pentagon’s “reliable sources” believed the man in the photo was not Donald Carr but a citizen of a third country living in Bangkok.

By now Carol was in despair. The government had flip-flopped so many times that she had lost all confidence in what it was telling her. Bailey, too, was changing his story. Now he was saying that the photos weren’t actually taken by Mr. X but by Mr. X’s nephew, who had access to the prison camp. And although he had at first said there was only one roll of film, he was now saying there were two. “I just wanted to punch all of them in the face,” Carol says.

By January, Carol Collins had not learned much more from Pentagon officials. They revealed only that the photos were supposedly taken just outside Bangkok in a facility used by traders for zoo and circus animals. They will not identify their sources because that could endanger their investigation.

IT IS ENTIRELY PLAUSIBLE THAT Donald Gene Carr is being held somewhere in Southeast Asia. The existence of road repair crews and enemy troops in the area where he disappeared makes capture a possibility. On the one hand, Carol isn’t inclined to accept the Pentagon’s latest proclamation based on its “reliable sources.” On the other hand, she is skeptical of Bailey’s claims. Lately he seems more like Don Quixote than a POW savior. In her heart Carol believes that her ex-husband is alive. Donny Carr, now 25, also believes the man in the photo is his father, though he has warned his mother about becoming obsessed.

Yet obsessed is what Carol has become. In early January, eight months after she first saw the photo, she drove out to Randolph Air Force Base northeast of San Antonio with a stack of indecipherable government papers. On her arm was a metal POW bracelet etched with her ex-husband’s name and likeness.

 At the base, Carol was introduced to two men—one who works with missing persons and another from the casualty office. The men were polite and solicitous. They spent an hour going over documents with Carol, discussing the details of Don’s mission in Laos, and trying to pin down the exact spot on the map where his plane vanished.

Finally Carol asked a question that had been gnawing at her for weeks. In early December she had received a document, dated September 1975, with a reference to “Bright Light”—the U.S. government’s data base for POWs—and a notation about a possible POW sighting that might have been connected to Carr’s case. To Carol, the memo spoke volumes. “Six months later Don was declared dead,” she angrily told the Air Force officials. “At no time did anyone tell me there was any chance, one chance in a billion, that he might be still alive.” For Carol this had become a sensitive point, perhaps the most painful in this entire anguished affair. Had she known there was even the slightest chance Don Carr was alive, she told herself, she would never have abandoned the search.

George Atkinson, the chief of the Air Force Missing Persons Division, shifted in his chair. He had no answer for her. The board that had presumed Donald Carr dead considered all the relevant information, he said. “I can’t quote you their mental feelings, but they looked at several classified documents, and they said it did not greatly affect their decision.” It was precisely the kind of answer that drives Carol crazy: sympathetic, vague, and ultimately useless.

Driving away from the base, she began to cry. If Donald Carr was actually still alive and brain-damaged, she’s not sure what she would be bringing him home to. Where would he live? How would she take care of him? But at least she would have the chance to make it all up to him. “The Don I’d like to find would be twenty-three and handsome again,” she said. “I wish I could go back and be twenty again.”

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