Flag represents price paid by families during war

Thursday, January 6, 2011  ERIC ALBRECHT | DISPATCH
Sandra Paul with a banner given to her this week in memory of her older son, Air Force Capt. Craig Paul, who was killed at 26 during the Vietnam War

On Monday afternoon, Sandra Paul was waiting for a special visitor in her Clintonville home.

The occasion demanded that she once again recount details of an event that consumed her life: On Dec. 20, 1972, her son Craig, a 26-year-old electronic warfare officer in the Air Force, was aboard a B-52 bomber that was shot down over North Vietnam.

Paul is a cheerful, energetic woman who calls herself the Candy Lady for her habit of handing out treats far and wide. But when the subject turns to Craig, a 1964 graduate of Whetstone High School, she speaks with surprising frankness.

"They (the North Vietnamese) said that he was killed in the plane crash, but that wasn't true. In 1977, when we got his remains back - of course it was the skeleton, you understand - there was a bullet hole in his forehead."

She thinks he survived the crash but was interrogated and executed.

During the five years between the crash and the return of her son's remains, Paul became a force to be reckoned with. She quit her teaching job and became Ohio coordinator of what is now called the National League of POW/MIA Families.

Before he died in 1996, her husband, Ken, told her he doubted that Craig's remains would ever have come home had she not been so persistent.

Today, she lives on a smaller teacher's pension but a much fuller heart for having been able to bury her son. The POW-MIA flag still flies beneath the American flag in her front yard.

"24/7," she said, careful to add that she lights the flagpole, as protocol requires, for nighttime display.

The flags are there so people won't forget, but people do forget. Hence, Paul's visitor this week: Thomas Mitchell, Ohio chapter director of Honor and Remember, a nonprofit organization (www.HonorandRemember.org) with a goal of bestowing a special flag on families that have lost loved ones in war.

The group is pushing to have the flag, featuring a gold star against a field of red, officially recognized by Congress, said Mitchell, of Hamilton.

When Paul heard about the effort last year, she called Mitchell and told him she wanted to donate to the cause. Then she told Mitchell her story, and he immediately put her high on the list of people who should receive flags.

Paul's husband, whom she married in 1943, was a waist gunner on a B-17 bomber that flew missions over Germany during World War II. They were married for 53 years. After his death, she flew on a restored B-17, just to feel a little of what he felt.  "I got a little weepy," she said.

Her younger son, Steven, who lives in Pickerington, served in the Navy during Vietnam and returned home safely.

And Craig is buried at the Air Force Academy in Colorado, the place he was wed two years before his death.

Mitchell, who himself has two sons serving in Afghanistan, presented the flag with minimal ceremony.

For a mother still missing her son, the banner - 3 by 5 feet and bearing the name of Craig Paul - said all that needed to be said.

Joe Blundo is a Dispatch columnist. This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it

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