The CIA Book of Honor — Star 78 : Tucker Gougelmann

“IN HONOR OF THOSE MEMBERS OF THE CENTRAL INTELLIGENCE AGENCY WHO GAVE THEIR LIVES IN THE SERVICE OF THEIR COUNTRY”

Memorial at the CIA Headquarters in Langley, Virginia

“Tucker Gougelmann was part of the remarkable generation that first set the tone of daring and determination that — more than a half century later — still moves and motivates the men and women of the CIA.Through multiple tours of risk and fire, Tucker was everything his country, his Agency, and his colleagues could ever ask of a senior officer. Time and again, he and those he led acquired the battlefield intelligence that saved American and South Vietnamese lives.”

Deputy Director of Central Intelligence (DDCI) John E. McLaughlin (June 8 2001)

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In 1974,  the CIA dedicated the Memorial Wall with 31 stars in 1974 to honor those who had fallen since the Agency’s founding in 1947.

On June 8 2001, the CIA formally commemorated the 78th star on its Memorial Wall, honoring former Agency officer Tucker Gougelmann, who died in Vietnam in the summer of 1976 after 11 months of torture.

Since the attacks of September 11 2001, 51 stars have been added to the Book of Honor and the Memorial Wall.

Gougelmann was a paramilitary officer who retired from the Agency in 1972 after a 23-year career that included service in Europe, Afghanistan, Korea, and Vietnam.

Gougelmann had returned to Saigon in the spring of 1975 — right after North Vietnam launched a major offensive — to try to secure exit visas for loved ones.

CIA officer Tucker Gougelmann — India (1966)

After missing the final flight out of Saigon, he was captured and disappeared into a dank prison cell, where he was tortured because of his past affiliation with CIA.

The decision to honor Gougelmann with a Memorial Star and place his name in the CIA’s Book of Honor was made after Agency officials broadened the criteria for inclusion on the Memorial Wall.

It was determined that although Gougelmann did not die in the line of duty while employed by CIA, his past affiliation with the Agency led to his death.

A Dirge for Tucker, Torture, and Dirty Work

by Kay Whitlock

We all have our ghosts, the memories of singular people and events in our lives that changed us forever, in ways we still struggle to define with emotional clarity, and so haunt us still.

For the most part, these ghosts exist in the shadows of our lives, half-remembered more or less as we actually experienced them and half-invoked in service of personal storylines about who we wish we really were, who we think we are, who we hope to be – and, conversely, who we do not want to be.

The ghost I have been visited by most recently is a man, long dissolved into dust, probably tortured to death in Vietnam, having been responsible, in part, for the torture and assassination of countless Vietnamese people. His name is Tucker Gougelmann. He is the 78th person to be commemorated with a star on the Wall of Honor at CIA headquarters.

I knew him briefly, by accident or dumb luck, if you can call it that, in the years between 1972 and 1975, before the repatriation of (at least some of) his broken bones. I knew him not well but vividly. His very presence, by definition, was vivid.

It would be easy to hate him, but I don’t; I never have. My responses are much more complicated and have to do with a furious, searing, and ceaseless grief. He never really goes away. What am I supposed to do with him?

(…)

It is said – you can see the same accounts circulating endlessly on the Internet – that Tucker retired from the CIA in 1972, but lived in Thailand, as a private businessman.  Is this true?  I do not know.  But it is true that during his years in Vietnam – apparently spanning the 1960s to 1970s – he had acquired a wife (said to be a common-law arrangement) and children.  Whether he fathered those children or not is not clear, but it really doesn’t matter.  When the United States withdrew from Vietnam and Saigon fell, Tucker went back in to try to secure safe departures for his Vietnamese family. And, with help, he did.

They made it out, just barely, but he did not. Vietnamese authorities took him into custody in Saigon.  Witnesses later placed him in prison.  Ultimately, Vietnamese authorities identified and repatriated his remains to the United States, and U.S. authorities authenticated them. It is said that his bones had been broken, healed, and broken again.  His remains were buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

It must have been a lonely and terrible death, a death exactly like that his work had inflicted on thousands of Vietnamese women and men.  I can’t imagine how painful and isolated his death or their deaths must have been.  Trying to imagine any of these losses, my heart shatters again and again and again.

Some have said his death was karmic, but I am not so sure.  Karma has always seemed more subtle and challenging to me than some sort of retributive, cosmic trap door/sledgehammer.  I’ve always thought that karma somehow provides us with the opportunity to begin understand the effects or impacts of our words and actions.  Where these are negative, for self and others, we are afforded the opportunity to speak and act differently. Whether we take that opportunity or not is up to us.

But who knows?

When I think of Tucker  – and I do, often – I ache.  I want to say something to him, but find I have no words.  I want to comfort all those who disappeared into the abyss of torture and assassination and disappearance that he helped construct.  But they are gone, and I cannot.

Some say he is a hero for rescuing his Vietnamese family.  I am grateful he was able to do so, even at the expense of his own life.  But what of the other families he helped to destroy?  Many say he was a patriot, willing to risk everything for his country.  But what does it mean to risk everything for the sake of inflicting massive pain and loss on so many others?  How did he reconcile the differing ways he treated those he consigned to dreadful torment and those he considered to be family?

Some say, well, at least he helped the Tibetans.  But even the Dalai Lama says that in those post-war years, the CIA’s involvement in Tibet was ultimately harmful.

What is the essential truth of Tucker?

I make no excuses for him.  Nor do I seek easy, uncomplicated evaluations of him.  Is he pure evil?  No.  Was he capable of goodness?  Yes. Can his culpability for such terrible violence be waived?  No.

The closest I can come is to contemplate something Friedrich Nietzsche once said:

“Beware that, when fighting monsters, you yourself do not become a monster… for when you gaze long into the abyss, the abyss gazes also into you.”

REFERENCES

CIA Commemorates 78th Star at Memorial Ceremony — June 8, 2001

THE CIA’S SECRET WAR IN TIBET by Kenneth Conboy and James Morrison

Tucker Gougelmann — Wikipedia

A Dirge for Tucker, Torture, and Dirty Work by Kay Whitlock

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The CIA Book of Honor — Star 78 : Tucker Gougelmann

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