Sister of POW recounts family’s struggle

Sarah Thiele

The sister of a former prisoner of war shared her story in conjunction with National MIA/POW Recognition Day.

Iowa State’s department of air force aerospace studies celebrated the day Friday with guest speaker Esta Raasch, who spoke to students about the story of her brother, Donald Sparks, who was a POW during the Vietnam War.

Sparks graduated from Iowa State University in 1968 and was granted a college deferment after he was drafted. After graduation, Sparks was sent off to boot camp, where he eventually broke his previously injured ankle, Raasch said. Like many other Americans of that era, he experienced discrimination because of his college deferment while in boot camp.

“He was sent to Fort Ord [Calif.] and there was a big discrimination problem there – not only with racism, but also with those who had college deferments,” Raasch said. “Later, court-ordered investigations led to the firing of many officers.”

While in Vietnam, Sparks’ platoon was ambushed and little was known about his fate. Raasch spoke through tears as she described the day the casualty officers came to inform her parents that Sparks had gone missing in action.

“The two officers got out of the car and asked to talk to my parents. I was 16 at the time and too young to understand what was going on, but I knew it wasn’t good,” Raasch said.

For the next few months it was hard to get information on Sparks. The family gained hope again when they were contacted by a broadcast journalist from Sioux City who claimed to have letters from Sparks. The letters were authenticated and provided the family, in their eyes, with evidence that Sparks was no longer MIA, but a prisoner of war.

“He [wrote that he] was getting three meals a day, he was being treated well, but he was by himself and was moved daily from camp to camp,” Raasch said.

The next step for Sparks’ family was to hold a status hearing in Washington, D.C., which would prove that Sparks was still alive. However, the military was trying to prove the opposite, presenting the Sparks family with several scenarios that contradicted evidence the family already had.

“They told us they had intelligence that said he was moved from camp to camp and was to be moved to another camp to join other Americans, and he never made it – so he died along the way,” Raasch said. “Another one was that he probably died from the wounds.”

After the status hearing it was ruled that Sparks be “listed as POW not returned,” Raasch said.

To further honor soldiers who are missing in action or prisoners of war, the department of air force aerospace studies set up a table in the Memorial Union.

“It’s called a POW/MIA table. It’s like a place-setting that we do in honor of those people that are still missing just to show that we’re still thinking about them,” said Heath Hunter, senior in sociology.