Phyllis and Paul Galanti

Lt. Cmdr. Paul E. Galanti and wife Phyllis were reunited at Norfolk Naval Air Station on Feb. 15, 1973, after he had been held as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam for nearly seven years.

Every now and again, a book is written that makes us realize just how costly the price of freedom can be. It’s a price exacted not only from military members but from their families as well. Heath Hardage Lee’s new book, “The League of Wives: The Untold Story of the Women Who Took On the U.S. Government to Bring Their Husbands Home,” does just that. The book tells with page-turning intensity the story of the American military wives who took on the federal government bureaucracy to get their prisoner of war (POW) husbands home and hold the North Vietnamese accountable for the brutal treatment of American prisoners.

For military families there is nothing more heart-stopping than an unexpected black sedan pulling into the driveway. There are few words more crushing for families than, “On behalf of the secretary of the Army, I am sorry to inform you that your husband (your son, your father, your daughter) died today. ...” Almost as heart-stopping is the news that a service member is missing in action or has been captured by the enemy or his whereabouts are unknown. It is in these situations that families begin to live in a holding pattern. They exist day to day, waiting for any word on the status of a missing loved one.

Thanks to vastly improved technology in communications, information management, surveillance and better training, there have been few American POWs or troops classified as missing in action (MIA) in the U.S.’s long involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan. Today, should a family feel the Defense Department is withholding information, they likely wouldn’t hesitate to share their concerns with the press or on a social media platform. Nowadays, it’s in the government’s best interest to remain as transparent as possible (without compromising safety) about the plight of a POW.

That’s a far cry from the way things worked during the Vietnam War. During that conflict, the North Vietnamese captured hundreds of American pilots and held them as POWs for years. Some were classified as MIA and never heard from again.

When a spouse went missing, the wives back at home were expected to “keep quiet” about the event. They were to avoid the media, even avoid discussing their husband’s status with family and friends. The wives were provided little information and often patronized by officials from both the State Department and the DOD. It was a frustrating and lonely dilemma.

It was after years of being shushed and shut out that this group of women — once demure, well-coifed wives dedicated to supporting their husbands’ careers — decided to take matters into their own hands. Off came the dinner gloves and high heels as these women came together and formed the National League of Families of American Prisoners and Missing in Southeast Asia.

Richmond’s own Phyllis Galanti was a key player in this remarkable group of women. Her husband, Paul Galanti, was a young naval aviator when he was shot down on June 17, 1966, in North Vietnam. For nearly seven years, Galanti was held in captivity. He was beaten, tortured and deprived of food and sleep on a regular basis.

Phyllis, along with dozens of other women, worked hard from the homefront to keep attention focused on the plight of America’s POWs. This book is their story.

Most of us will never experience what those 800 or so POWs and their families went through. Most Americans will never hear that ominous knock on the door, or know the despair of having a loved one lost and never found. This book gives us a glimpse of the enormous strength of those who endured these experiences.

— Robin Beres

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