Her email address was nowhining@…, a symbol of her outlook on life. Married to Paul since the early 1960s, Phyllis Galanti endured six years as a wife of a prisoner-of-war (POW) in Vietnam. But she never complained. Instead, she got busy. The “shy, retiring housewife,” as she was described by Paul at the time he left for Vietnam, later became a national advocate for the release of all our American servicemen who were held as POWs in Vietnam, as well as those service members who were missing-in-action (MIA).
Warned by the military that speaking out publicly about their husbands’ status as POWs would result in worse treatment for them and a setback in the government’s attempts to secure the POWs’ release, wives like Phyllis were ordered to keep silent about their husbands and, for awhile, they obeyed. But after several years of inaction by the government, many of the POW and MIA wives grew tired of suffering alone. Fearing their husbands were languishing and deteriorating in prison, the women were also becoming increasingly impatient. Backed financially by Ross Perot, they banded together and decided to raise awareness of their husbands’ plights, overtly defying the military’s directives. It was a bold move and, at the time, their aggressiveness was shocking. But, encouraged by Mr. Perot and their own determination, they walked the halls of Congress and talked to anyone in the White House, the State Department and the media who would lend them an ear. Phyllis became a leader of this forceful group of women.
Addressing a joint session of the Virginia General Assembly, facing down Henry Kissinger, and traveling the world to meet with the North Vietnamese and keep the pressure on the peace negotiations, Phyllis became an outspoken advocate for all the POWs. She was tireless. She never gave up and never lost the faith. More than six years after Paul was shot down and incarcerated at the infamous Hanoi Hilton, he was finally released on February 12, 1973 – 2,432 days after his capture. Four decades later, the wives and their campaign are widely credited with influencing the Paris peace negotiations and securing their husbands’ freedom. That shy, retiring housewife had been replaced with a steely advocate for change. As Kissinger later said to Paul in his thick German accent, “Your vife, she gave me so much trouble.” Paul was so proud.
Statuesque, poised and calm, Phyllis was not easily excitable. She had a softness about her that was disarming. It started with her full head of spun-silver hair, punctuated by a large, sunny grin that filled her fair-skinned face and lit up her blue eyes. She exuded Southern charm, warmth, and class. And she had the patience of an oyster.
Their emotional reunion was captured on the cover of Newsweek magazine and their story had a happy ending: Paul finished out a successful Navy career and is now the Commissioner of the Virginia Department of Veterans Services. They had two sons and three grandchildren. They continued to serve in the community of their adopted home of Richmond, Virginia, through extensive volunteer work – especially at the Virginia War Memorial, which named its new education center after the couple. They were enjoying their golden years. And, then, Phyllis became ill and died very suddenly last week. I’m sure she would say that she had no regrets in her life – except for perhaps more time with Paul and her children and grandchildren.
Einstein was quoted as saying, “In the service of life, sacrifice becomes grace.” Phyllis sacrificed greatly for Paul and her country, but she won her war, and she exited this world quietly and full of grace.
Taylor Baldwin Kiland is the author of two books about Vietnam POWs.