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MY HERO: I Was Shot Down and Imprisoned in Vietnam but My Wife Was Braver Than Me

The families of POWs held in the Hanoi Hilton faced the unknown

spinner image Alice Stratton during the Vietnam War.
Alice Stratton during the Vietnam War.
Courtesy of the Beaches Leader

Even after two decades of researching and writing about our Vietnam prisoners of war, the sentiments expressed by one of them was still a surprise.

“What folks do not realize is that during the Vietnam War, the wives and families had it far worse than we did,” said Dick Stratton, a retired Navy captain who is now 91.

“Our families from one day to the next did not know if we were okay or not; they had no confidence that our government gave a damn about us or would ever bring us home.”

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He was right. That was 2015, and a book about his wife and the other family members who advocated for the American captives, still the longest-held group of POWs in our nation’s history, was long overdue. 

Lt. Cdr. Dick Stratton was captured in January 1967 when his A-4 Skyhawk was shot down. At first, his wife was afraid to speak out, having been admonished to keep quiet when he went missing. But she suspected he was enduring torture, malnutrition and isolation at the Hanoi Hilton.

A clinical social worker, she had three sons under 6 years old when her husband was incarcerated.

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Wobbly kneed, Alice gave her first speech in October 1969 to an empathetic audience at her church in Palo Alto, California. Next, she spoke in front of a like-minded group: military wives. Each time it got easier. She read her speech to anyone in the Bay Area who would listen: Kiwanis and Rotary Clubs, schools, colleges and service organizations.

To keep her emotions in check and appear calm, her delivery was a bit flat. Yet her underlying passion captivated audiences. A Toastmaster advisor smiled, shaking his head. “I don’t understand it, but that monotone is still effective.” 

Encouraged by other wives, she initiated letter-writing campaigns to the foreign minister of North Vietnam, American newspaper editors and legislators. She went public for her husband, her children and the other POWs, revealing the inhumane treatment Dick and his comrades were being subjected to by the North Vietnamese. 

Once shy, Alice morphed into a crusader and lobbyist, participating in press conferences, collaborating with other wives on marketing campaigns. Though none of these skills came easily, her persistence paid off.

She and hundreds of other wives rallied a nation and President Richard Nixon around the plight of the prisoners of war, making the POWs’ fate a centerpiece of the Paris peace talks and a national priority. Securing their release became the only victory left in that divisive war.

Her advocacy work continued even after Dick was reunited with her and their sons after more than six years in captivity. She advised Navy leadership on the need to institutionalize the family support she and other POW and MIA wives had developed ad hoc.

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Alice remained in the vanguard, advocating for policy changes and budget allocations. She pushed Navy leadership to recognize that the well-being of a sailor’s family contributed to a crew’s health, happiness and effectiveness. 

In 1985, she became the Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Personnel and Family Matters, with an office in the coveted “E” ring of the Pentagon. 

Alice oversaw the implementation of Family Service Centers across the country, where the Navy now offers counseling, referrals, programs on parental effectiveness, financial management and child abuse prevention programs. In recognition of her efforts, the Navy named the Family Service Center in Annapolis, Maryland, the “Captain Richard and Alice Stratton Family Service Center.”

spinner image Dick and Alice Stratton stand in front of a set of doors, with a sign saying Stratton Hall above them.
Dick and Alice Stratton stand in front of the Annapolis Family Service Center in 1990. The center was named Stratton Hall after Alice Stratton's groundbreaking work.
Courtesy Stratton family

Dick and Alice, who is 89, now live in Jacksonville, Florida.

He is immensely proud of the way she led the charge on behalf of Navy families. She earned her stripes during the Vietnam War during those dark days when his fate was unknown and her future uncertain, and he was tickled by her elevation to the Pentagon brass. 

“I woke up one morning and found that my wife now outranked me by two and a half pay grades,” he quipped.

You can subscribe here to AARP Veteran Report, a free e-newsletter published twice a month. If you have feedback or a story idea then please contact us here.

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