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When Valerie Kushner was on the cover of LIFE Magazine in 1972, there were 537 known prisoners of war in Vietnam and more than 1,000 men missing in action.
As those men became something of a political football, LIFE noted in that Sept. 29, 1972, cover story that their families were caught in the middle. Initially, they had been told to keep quiet lest news about the POWs provoke their captors—a calculation still in play for some Americans dealing with analogous situations today. But President Nixon had decided that, after years of stalemate, it couldn’t hurt to have them come out of the shadows.
Kushner was one of the people who did so with particular force. She was the wife of POW Harold Kushner, whose story is featured in the Ken Burns and Lynn Novick docu-series The Vietnam War. She was a founder of POW/MIA Families for Immediate Release, and the LIFE photograph that’s fourth in the gallery above appears in the documentary.
“Her husband, a flight surgeon, was captured five years ago,” the magazine explained. “Reluctant to play the role of docile service wife, she seconded McGovern’s nomination at the Democratic convention and is now an active worker in his campaign. He is the last hope, she now believes, for her husband’s safe return.”
In all the time he had been gone, Kushner had received only two letters from her husband. She wrote back despite knowing he did not receive the replies, although announcements he was forced to record by his captors were aired on Radio Hanoi. She believed that electing George McGovern, a Democratic Senator from South Dakota and a former pilot who championed withdrawing from Vietnam, was the only way to bring her husband home.
Valerie was pregnant with the couple’s second child when Harold, known as Hal or “Spanky,” was shot down. The LIFE article, which made its way to Vietnam, was the first time that Hal Kushner saw a photograph of his son. His wife was raising both children with the help of their grandparents, but shunned any praise of her ability to maintain her political work as a single mother. “I never had any doubts about my own capabilities,” she told LIFE. In fact, she added with remarkable candor, she believed that being deprived of sex gave her plenty of extra energy to sublimate into other activities.
“There are things that you miss more than sex, however,” she said. “I miss being loved more than being made love to.”
But, she acknowledged, she believed that the return of the prisoners would be a preface to many divorces, as both sides realized that the partner they had lost was not the same person to whom they returned.
McGovern lost the election, but Harold Kushner was released on March 16, 1973. As The Vietnam War reveals, however, Valerie’s prediction proved true: the man had survived, but the marriage would not.