Lady and the Flag
When Carole Hickerson’s husband was missing in action during the Vietnam War, she started a movement of families frustrated by a lack of information on their missing loved ones.
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There are some people history just won’t let us forget - many of them more infamous than famous. Then there are the countless others who go unnoticed or disappear into everyday life to be unfairly forgotten once the mission to which they have dedicated their lives has finished.
Carole Hickerson is one of the latter. She didn’t write the horrifying novel that helped end deadly working conditions in early 20th century U.S. factories. She didn’t write the song that brought to light the economic and social disparity between white and black America six decades later.
What she and a dedicated group of other young woman did in the late 1960s and early ‘70s was equally as important. They changed the way the nation looks at its servicemembers and veterans. Hickerson, for her part, helped create one of the most-recognizable symbols of anger, despair, admiration and support.
Hickerson married her college sweetheart, Steve Hansen, in 1962. As a boy, Hansen dreamed of flight while watching planes take off from California’s Oxnard Air Force Base. Hansen realized his dream in 1964 after he enlisted in the Marines. Two years later he was sent to Vietnam, leaving behind a young wife and a son he had never met. During his year-plus tour of duty, the CH-46 helicopter pilot was shot down three times. Once he found refuge in a cave. The second time safety came in a rice paddy.
But on June 3, 1967, his luck ran out. Hansen was shot down in Laos and taken prisoner. He wouldn’t return home until 1999 when his remains - a single tooth - were recovered and sent to the Central Identification Laboratory, Hawaii. In 2000 he was then finally given a proper burial at Arlington National Cemetery. By then, his widow had remarried, adopted two children and helped change a nation. The homecoming was both welcome and difficult.
“Although it was hard to go through, it means a lot to have Steve buried in the country he so dearly loved,” says Hickerson.
Still a head-turner at 71, and with humor and optimism that radiates from her sparkling eyes and dazzling smile, Hickerson remains much the same person as the one who took on U.S. policy, the Cold War, disinterested enemy leaders and a country at war with itself.
Like most family members who lost loved ones during the Vietnam war, Hickerson bore her burden in silence. U.S. policy was to keep information secret regarding soldiers and airmen missing in action.
“That went on for so long. From ‘67 to the end of ‘68, that’s the policy I followed,” she says. “Very few people knew that Steve was listed as missing. It was going against government policy, especially when they said if you go public it could harm your husband, son or whoever.”
The U.S. was not acknowledging operations outside of Vietnam, and that made getting information about servicemembers lost beyond its borders nearly impossible. North Vietnam wouldn’t release a list of prisoners, and families didn’t know if their loved ones were alive or dead.
Eventually she grew tired of the silence and decided to speak up.
“I had a hard time even finding out where he went down,” she says. “It wasn’t until some of his squadron mates came back, and even then I remember one of them pulling out a big map and not even saying it out loud, not saying anything, just pointing to where he was shot down.”
Soon after she began a letter-writing campaign to every address she could find. She wrote to 350 newspapers asking readers to write their representatives and North Vietnamese communist leaders. She wrote to embassies and radio stations, religious groups and politicians. Some were helpful, others were not. Some returned checks she sent to pay for ads, running the ads for free. Others wrote back, saying her efforts were worthless since President Richard Nixon was doing everything he could for the missing or captured. Hickerson thought she was alone but quickly discovered there were thousands like her. She was flooded with letters from wives, mothers, sons and daughters. She joined with other women in California to help spread awareness.
A movement was born. Sybil Stockdale, wife of then-Cmdr. John Stockdale, who would become one of the most decorated servicemen in U.S. history and who famously beat himself in the face with a stool so his captors couldn’t use him for propaganda, came on board. Mrs. Stockdale enlisted a lawyer friend who helped the women establish the National League of Families of America’s Prisoners of War and Missing in Action in Southeast Asia. Using her Washington connections, Stockdale opened an office in the capital, donated by the American Legion.
Sponsored by a Catholic newspaper, she and three other wives went on an
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