Family remembers Army POW on Memorial Day

by: Diana Davis Updated:

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ATLANTA - Forty years after their father was released as a prisoner of war from Vietnam, a north Georgia family is remembering his service to our country as they mark the first Memorial Day since his death.

Col. Ben Purcell was the highest-ranking Army POW in the Vietnam War. His wife and daughter talked about his service with Channel 2’s Diana Davis.

“We lived on hope and a prayer,” Joy Purcell said. She was just 20 months old in 1967 when her father, a Korean War vet, volunteered for a tour of duty in Vietnam.

Purcell’s wife, Anne, prepared for another hitch as a single mom to five children for the 13 months Purcell would be gone. Those 13 months became five years.
 
In early 1968, Anne was sitting in church when her pastor and an Army officer called her into the office.

“I knew before I got to them that they probably had something to tell me I didn't want to hear,” she remembered.

Purcell’s helicopter had been shot down. He and five others were missing in action.

“I said, 'Lord, I don't know if he's dead or alive, but you do, and I love him  and I know you love him and I want him to come home, but I will accept this however you want it to turn out.’"

Anne Purcell told Davis that moment was a turning point in her life. She focused on family.  Her youngest son was having a tough time.
 
“He said to me, 'Mom, I'm afraid dad is not going to get to come home.'”

Thirteen months later, Anne Purcell learned Ben had been captured, but the Army still couldn't tell her if he was dead or alive.

“They left it up to me to decide if I was going to hope or give up or what,” she said.

Years passed and toddler Joy grew into a little girl with no memories of her father except the photos on her mother’s nightstand.

“I would often sit on her bed and I would look at that picture and I would imagine what my father was like, and I dreamed of what it would be like to have him home,” Joy Purcell said.
 
The war dragged on with protests and demonstrations growing in the United States. In Vietnam, Col. Purcell remained locked up. Purcell said he remained in solitary confinement for most of his time as a prisoner. He was able to escape twice, but was recaptured both times.

On Jan. 27, 1973, the Paris Peace Accord was signed, ending American military involvement in Vietnam.

Two months later, Col. Purcell was home, but through tears, Joy Purcell told Davis it was difficult to reconnect with her father.

“It took us many years to develop a close father-daughter relationship. There was a lot of healing that had to go on. There was a lot of time that was lost,” she said.
 
Joy Purcell says she loved her father but told Davis the wounds didn't heal until 1993, when she and her dad traveled to Vietnam. It was on that trip, 20 years after his release, when they developed a close relationship.

“It was such a turning point in our relationship and in my life. I got to walk where he walked. I got to see his old prison camps,” she said.
  
Joy Purcell told Davis she came away with a deeper understanding and pride in her father and what he went through.

“To see where he had lived and the stories or prison and escape that he endured. It was amazing and surreal at the same time,” she said.
 
The Purcells had the next forty years together. Col. Purcell died earlier this year at age 85.

Monday, the Purcells remembered him and all the others who served and sacrificed.

“I got my dad back, and not every military child out there can say that. There's a lot of sacrifice that has gone into keeping us free, and I just hope and pray that we never forget that. As we honor our service men and women on Memorial Day, I hope we will also honor the sacrifice of their families,” Joy Purcell said.