Ted Sampley; Vietnam veteran was activist for POWs, MIAs

By Matt Schudel
Washington Post / May 16, 2009
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WASHINGTON - Ted Sampley, a Vietnam War veteran and former member of the Green Berets who was a persistent activist for American prisoners of war and missing servicemen, and who later led smear campaigns against presidential candidates, died Tuesday at the VA Medical Center in Durham, N.C., of complications from heart surgery. He was 62.

Mr. Sampley, who had an uncanny talent for capturing public attention, was a founder of Rolling Thunder, the annual motorcycle caravan that raises money for POW/MIA causes. In 1994, he presented evidence that the Vietnam-era remains in the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington National Cemetery were not anonymous after all.

By painstakingly analyzing service records and maps, he concluded that the remains were those of a missing pilot, Air Force Lieutenant Michael Blassie, who was shot down in 1972. In 1998, US military officials confirmed Blassie's identity through DNA analysis.

But Mr. Sampley often took his advocacy to extreme lengths and combined a malicious streak with a flair for outrageous publicity stunts. He shouted down a president during a speech, chained himself to the White House fence, and once delivered bamboo cages, filled with hunger strikers, to the lawn of a presidential chief of staff. He also went to jail for assaulting an aide to Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona.

An equal-opportunity political offender, Mr. Sampley lodged dubious charges that attacked the patriotism of officials from both parties. In 2004, he formed an organization called Vietnam Veterans Against Kerry, to oppose the presidential campaign of Senator John F. Kerry, Democrat of Massachusetts. He supported, but was not formally affiliated with, another anti-Kerry movement, the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth.

Mr. Sampley called Kerry "Hanoi John" and distributed through his website a photograph - later shown to be faked - of Kerry and Jane Fonda, the actress and antiwar activist who had visited Hanoi during the war. Last year, he used his website to denounce "Sen. Barack Hussein Obama Jr." and his father's Muslim heritage.

But Mr. Sampley reserved his most venomous attacks for McCain, a Navy pilot and fellow Vietnam veteran who spent five years as a prisoner of war. Mr. Sampley believed many missing soldiers and airmen were still alive and was upset that McCain did not champion an effort to bring them home. As a result, Mr. Sampley dug through McCain's record, using innuendo to make claims that ranged from far-fetched to scurrilous to slanderous.

In a 1992 article in his magazine, US Veteran Dispatch, Mr. Sampley called McCain "the Manchurian candidate," suggesting he had been brainwashed by his captors and might have been a dupe or secret agent of the Soviet KGB.

When McCain recommended that the United States establish diplomatic relations with Vietnam, Mr. Sampley accused him of abetting the enemy.

Theodore Lane Sampley was born in Wilmington, N.C., and joined the Army in 1963. He served two tours of combat duty in Vietnam and was chosen for the elite Green Berets special forces unit.

He left the Army in 1973 as a staff sergeant and settled in Kinston, N.C., where he designed handmade pottery and owned several small businesses, including a restaurant and printing shop.

In the early 1980s, he was drawn to the POW/MIA cause and discovered a knack for getting attention.

"His favorite trick was to chain himself and others - preferably attractive MIA daughters - to the gates of the White House and throw fake blood at police, onto the White House lawn, or at Secret Service agents," author Susan Katz Keating wrote in her 1994 book, "Prisoners of Hope: Exploiting the POW-MIA Myth in America."