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March/April 2007

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Laverne Ransbottom finds it hard to shift gears after 38 years. The idea of “closure” doesn’t rest easily with her. She’s not sure what the word means. “Normal” is another such word, its meaning having changed too much over the course of so many years when she couldn’t be sure if her son was alive or dead. In January, at long last, she buried that son, 1st Lt. Frederick Joel Ransbottom, in Edmond, Okla.

“It’s been ingrained in my psyche for such a long time,” she said. “I don’t know what’s normal anymore. I think that if he had been dead in the beginning, we could have coped with that, and we would have gotten over that. We would have come to terms with it. I think our biggest problem was always with putting them (her son and other Kham Duc MIAs) in a prisoner of war category.”

There were reports of POWs, and one in fact was taken prisoner and later released in 1973. So in the back of her mind the questions festered: Was he alive? Had he been taken prisoner? And if he was alive, was he cold and hungry? Did he have food to eat? Was he being mistreated?

Back home in Oklahoma, she just tried to get through the day.

“You try to shut that out of your head, and you just can’t,” she said. “Not as a parent you can’t. No matter what you do, no matter what you say or how hard you work at it, there’s no light at the end of the tunnel.”

Her husband, a World War II veteran, thought he could solve the mystery himself. He told the governor of Oklahoma that if he could go to Kham Duc, he’d find Freddy himself. He knew he could find him. He just knew it.

It was difficult to talk about Freddy at home, “the husband and wife thing,” Laverne calls it. He didn’t know how to talk to her about it, and she said she was the same way with him. The not knowing changed everything.

“You try to be nice,” she said. “You separate yourself from the working world, and you separate yourself from a lot of people, because you absolutely cannot talk about it. And you know that they don’t even want to hear about it.”

Not everyone didn’t want to talk about it, though. The Ransbottoms went to meetings in Washington with family members of other men who were missing. Laverne thought the meetings were geared more toward the wives of the missing, but they went nonetheless. Back home, they found closeness still hard to find. The world had changed too much.

“We could not get back to where we were, and so we both had to move away from it a little bit,” Laverne said. “You’ve got to move it out far enough so that it’s not an all-consuming thing. You can’t keep it close to you all day long, or you’re going to lose your mind. You’ve got to move it out far enough so you can look at it almost like it’s happening to someone else.”

And it was happening to someone else. It was happening to many people, one of them a young Texas woman, Vickie Gannon, barely out of her teens when Laverne Ransbottom met her at one of the POW-MIA family meetings in Washington. Her brother, Danny Widner, was one of the missing from Kham Duc and remains MIA today. She thinks it might have been 1979 when she met Laverne at the meeting in Washington.

“I love her to death,” Vickie said. “We’ve bunked together in all kinds of places. She’s been such a huge advocate for all the guys.”

Each seizes on the word “family” to describe not only their relationship but everyone they’ve met on the long road to finding the missing—the Kham Duc survivors, VVA, Tim Brown, the JPAC archaeologist Brad Sturm, other families of the missing.

“Oh, absolutely, family,” Laverne said.

Vickie Gannon was two weeks shy of her thirteenth birthday when she walked home from school one day and saw a group of people at her house. When she went inside, nobody spoke to her, but she knew something was wrong. She could see it in the faces, feel it in the room, and she didn’t want to know what it was. She went straight back to her room.

“One of my brothers came back and told me,” she said. “I remember not being able to move.”

What did MIA mean? Had they lost him? Danny never told her he was going to a dangerous place.

The next morning, her mother woke her and told her to get ready to go to school. She said Danny would be all right. They thought at the time that Danny would be found soon. Any day, they’d be hearing something good.

“I don’t think that ever changed for me,” Vickie said. “I think I’ve spent the last 38 years never expecting that I would never know or that my mother would never know. It was always what has to be done to get to that point. I don’t think that ever changed for me.”

She spent her high school years going to POW-MIA meetings. When other girls in her class were interested in who they might date that weekend, or the prom, or any of the other myriad details of high school social life, Vickie was interested only in finding out if her brother was still alive.

Over the years, she set aside a week to dedicate herself to Danny.

“I called it My Week for Danny,” she said. “I would go to Washington, do everything I could to find out more information, and then go back home and live life as usual. I started in 1979, when my mother was no longer able physically to make the trip. My sister, Dovie, went every year from the first year. Dovie died in 2000. After awhile, I just kind of adopted all of the people involved in Kham Duc, because so many were not able to come anymore. I had met Bill Skivington, and when he wasn’t able to come, Laverne, Dovie, and I just kind of incorporated him and all of them. It was like a glass of water was filling up.”

On the surface, Laverne Ransbottom searched for a son and Vickie Gannon for a brother, but each makes it clear that the meaning of all the years goes deeper than two men, and it stretches to the future more than the past. Vickie remembers her mother and sister frequently reminding her that all the work they did wasn’t just for those missing in Vietnam. It was for all the men and women who would go into battle in the future.

“My mother and sister said this all my life,” she said. “I can remember when Desert Storm began that I thought, my God, we can’t do this yet. We don’t have it fixed.”
Allen “Doc” Hoe, the medic in Fred Ransbottom’s recon unit, called Vickie late at night to give her the news that Snoopy 6 and Skip Skivington had been found. Vickie called Donny Ransbottom, Fred’s brother. Donny told his mother.

“This will be the strangest thing you ever heard, but I expected it,” Laverne Ransbottom said. “From the time I met (JPAC archaeologist) Brad Sturm and some of the others, I felt they would be successful. I just knew they would. Brad told me, ‘When we found them, when we realized what we had found, we stopped everything. I’m not ashamed to tell you that I wasn’t the only one who cried.’”

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