c.2019, St. Martin’s Press
$28.99 ($37.99 Canada)
323 pages

To love, honor, and cherish.

That’s what you vowed, in sickness and health, ’til death do you part. They’re promises you’ll keep forever — especially, as in the new book “The League of Wives” by Heath Hardage Lee, when one of you fights on the other’s behalf.

When a woman married a military man in the 1960s, she quickly learned that her life would never be the same.

There was, first of all, a book she was given to help her learn the rules she’d be expected to follow. Says Lee, “a pilot needed the right wife” if he wanted a career in the military; her actions in dress and public decorum impacted his chances for promotion, and her social standing “mirrored her husband’s rank.”

By this reckoning, Sybil Stockdale was the highest-ranking wife at her husband’s naval base in California in 1964. Highly esteemed by other Navy wives, she was married to Commander James Stockdale and “had grown proficient at the military game.”

That familiarity helped her in months to come.

In September 1965, Jim Stockdale was shot down over the Gulf of Tonkin and captured. He wasn’t the first U.S. pilot to be taken as a prisoner of war, and Sybil wasn’t the first wife of a Vietnam POW, but her rank conferred leadership and as the war continued, she reached out to other POW wives in what became a “reluctant sorority.”

By latter 1966, those wives began to realize that “they were low priority on the Johnson administration agenda.” Johnson wouldn’t meet with them and “the State Department all but ignored” them, even as their numbers grew. They were told that speaking out could jeopardize their husbands’ survival. They began to think that government officials wished they’d go away.

The one exception: the liaison assigned to them, a man who later was lauded for his help. He seemed to understand that there was one way for the women to get their husbands home, and he told them: “Organize.”

And so they did …

Somewhere on a shelf in your home, you might have a stack of thrillers you’ve read and loved and will read again. Add “The League of Wives” to that pile; it’s is as thrilling as any novel, but it’s all true.

Yes, you know how this story ends, but the getting-there’s the appeal. Author Heath Hardage Lee brings readers a real-life account of politics, espionage, and secrets, inside a tale of a changing world and an unpopular war, inside a story of one small corner of the history of women’s rights. While that might seem like a lot to take (and Lee may appear to lean a bit), it’s a comfortable read with urgent surprises — the kind you’d get if you discovered a pile of old women’s magazines in your grandmother’s attic, with espionage codes stuck among the pages.

That adds up to a tale that’s just-right-told, especially if you’re a politico, history buff, veteran, military wife, or feminist. For you, and you love a good thriller, “The League of Wives” could become a cherished story.

WI Guest Author

This correspondent is a guest contributor to The Washington Informer.

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