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.

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

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