The Forever War

Joan Shelton has trouble watching television news about soldiers coming home from the Persian Gulf. “I’m happy for the families, but it’s hard for me because it’s a reminder. Their war may be over, but ours isn’t.”

Joan Shelton’s war may never be over. Her father, Charles Shelton, is the only American still officially listed as a prisoner of war from Vietnam. Of the nearly 2,300 men who remain unaccounted for in that war, he is the only one who has not been declared dead by the U.S. government.

Her mother, Dorothy Marian Shelton, spent 25 years trying to find Charles. Last October, she finally gave up the struggle and fatally shot herself in the backyard of her San Diego home.

The war many Americans would like to forget continues to shape Joan Shelton’s life. She wears two bracelets on her right wrist, one for her father and the other in recognition of all Vietnam veterans missing in action or held as prisoners of war. She won’t take the bracelets off until her father and the others are either proven dead to the satisfaction of their families or are returned to them.

Now 27, she shares a house in Louisville’s Germantown neighborhood with her sister, Lea Ann, 38. All around the house are pictures and mementoes of her parents. Her mother’s rosary lies on a table near her bed; beside it is her father’s pocketknife. In the basement are her father’s uniforms and some of the toys he played with as a child.

Shelton’s jet was shot down on April 29, 1965, his 33rd birthday. Packed away among his things are six birthday cards he never got a chance to open. Twenty-six years later, the cards remain unopened. “We have a strict family rule about opening each other’s mail,” Joan said with a smile. Recently she and Lea Ann looked at the sealed envelopes. “I said, ‘We’ll get in trouble if we open these,’ and we both laughed.”

Joan is the youngest of the five Shelton children. She was conceived after her father had a vasectomy. “Mom always felt I was a godsend, sent to help her.” The child so strongly resembled Shelton that her mother often called her “Charles.”

Joan was 18 months when her father, an Air Force captain, was shot down on a photo-reconnaissance mission over Laos. Shelton parachuted safely, according to the U.S. military, but couldn’t be rescued because of bad weather. The weather cleared after four days; by then he had disappeared.

Joan has no memory of her father, nor has she been able to find a picture of herself with him in the mass of family photographs.

Dorothy Shelton began a long crusade to find out where her husband might be held. Her efforts resulted in trips to Asia, countless speeches, and phone bills that averaged $900 a month. Joan now feels her mother was used by some who became involved in POW-MIA issues out of political or personal self-interest. Her mother was a good drawing card for any rally or protest. “They didn’t care about her as a person, but she could never say no.”

She also feels her mother’s activities became dangerously obsessive. Married at 18, she had four children in five years. “She didn’t have a real identity beyond being my dad’s wife.” She also wouldn’t let herself or the children cry because grieving meant the family had given up hope.

As years passed, Dorothy Shelton began to drink heavily. Joan got her into three treatment programs, but nothing helped. “One day I realized Mom might never sober up, and I couldn’t make her happy even though I loved her and she loved me.” Joan decided to move back to Kentucky. On the day she was to leave, her mother killed herself.

Joan eventually made it back. She has a lot of family in Louisville and Owensboro. Her three brothers live in California, but all hope to return to Kentucky. “One of my brothers is concerned I’ll wind up like Mom. I feel I’ve lost both parents to the Vietnam War, and I’m not going to let that happen to me.”

But a commitment to POW-MIA issues is central to Joan’s life. She works as a manicurist, a job that lets her arrange her schedule around veterans activities. “I do it so our troops in Iraq and other places won’t be left behind.” She has contacts with some 25 veterans groups around the country, but tries to steer clear when rivalries and infighting break out among them.

Joan feels most comfortable socially with men who are 15-20 years older than she. People closer to her age lack depth, she said. They don’t understand how painful the scars of history can be. But she also tries to get away from history. Riding her motorcycle brings a sense of freedom. She loves to cook food with strong flavors, like Mexican and Thai. She loves music that expresses deep feeling, everything from Italian opera to blues.

Manicuring is also an escape. “It’s light, and you can talk to people about anything.” Sometimes when she’s working , the customer will notice her POW/MIA bracelets and ask her about them.

“Usually I don’t feel like discussing them. Sometimes at work I think about taking them off—but I can’t.”

—adapted from The Courier-Journal

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