Honor Guards : For Those Touched by War, Memorial Day Is Chance to Remember : A Life in Limbo

Twenty-one Memorial Days have gone by since Barbara Birchim’s husband, Army Capt. James Birchim of the Green Berets, was listed as Missing in Action in South Vietnam. But she still lives life in limbo.

She knows this much about Nov. 15, 1968, the last day he was seen alive: “They were going on a reconnaissance, to help extract some men who had gotten surrounded by the enemy. It was in Laos.” Birchim and another man were being lifted out, suspended below a helicopter.

Beyond that, she only knows what the other man has told her, that “at some point between Point A and Point B, Jim dropped off. It was at night. It was raining.” Cut by ropes, he was unable to hang on. No one knows just where the helicopter was, or at what altitude.

Birchim was at her parents’ home in San Francisco when two officers appeared at the door that November day 22 years ago to tell her that her husband was MIA.


About the time he was declared missing, she received a letter from him. “He told me he was working with the Montagnards and how much he enjoyed that. He had even suggested adopting a Montagnard baby.” She was pregnant with David, now 21. Their daughter, Kim, was 6 months old.

Barbara Birchim doesn’t quite believe her husband is alive, but she isn’t sure he’s dead, either. “I think it’s very possible he’s wandering around not knowing where he is.”

With no solid evidence, the Army in May, 1971, changed James Birchim’s status from MIA to “killed in action, body not recovered.” In August of that year, she married another Army officer.

The marriage ended in divorce 11 years later. Now 43, she lives in San Diego.

Birchim belongs to the National League of Families of American Prisoners and Missing in Southeast Asia, which seeks information on 2,303 Americans missing or unaccounted for in the region. Independently, she has made two trips to Vietnam, the last in March.

“When Jim first turned up missing, I made a promise to him and myself that I would go to Vietnam when the kids were old enough to be self-sufficient,” she said. The responses of villagers there to her questions convinced her that “there are Americans there.”

She is critical of the U.S. government for what she views as inaction and the withholding of information. She went to Vietnam, she said, partially because she had to explode the “mystique” of Vietnam. “Now, a lot of the mystery is gone and there’s comfort in that.”

In the last 18 months, she said, “there have been rumors that there are five to seven Green Berets living in the mountains in the Kontum area (near where Birchim’s base camp was) with the Montagnard people.” She believes Jim Birchim could be one of them.

She poses the possibility, too, that Americans are being held by “some little militant faction that thinks they’re still at war with us.” If Jim Birchim is alive, she believes, he is being held against his will.

If he is alive, he is 43 now. Barbara Birchim accepts the possibility that he could be leading another life there. “We’ve heard stories about men forced to work in the fields, and part of their pay is they give them Vietnamese wives.”

But she is adamant that the men and women still in Southeast Asia “have the right to come home” and that their government should be fighting harder for that right.