By Chris Roberts
By Joe Eskenazi
By Albert Samaha
By Mike Billings
By Rachel Swan
By Erin Sherbert
By Joe Eskenazi
By Albert Samaha
But the more Poshepny drank, the more of a nuisance he became to his superiors. And the more of a nuisance he became, the farther away his bosses told him to go, hoping to keep him out of trouble; eventually, the commando was pushed all the way to the China border. Poshepny was under strict orders not to engage in combat, but the farther away he went, the more belligerent he became.
After sacking one village, he says, he married the chieftain's daughter, giving the father a dowry of 100 water buffalo and 75 goats. "She had a terrific wiggle," he says with a grin. "Better still, she was Catholic." Poshepny may have been pleased, but his marriage was yet another violation of CIA rules, which forbid agents from becoming romantically involved with their "clients" for security reasons.
On the China border, Poshepny began training a new tribe, 10,000 people who then were called the Yao, and now are called the Mein. As the years passed, Poshepny's reputation as a maniacal, coldblooded killer grew among Americans familiar with his work, while among the tribes, he became respected as a leader who cared about his people. He says he took members of the Yao on airborne reconnaissance missions across the China border. When he ran low on ammunition, he put grenades in glass jars, pulled the spoons, and dropped them from the helicopter. When he ran out of grenades, he says, he dropped smooth, round river stones, which could smash straight through the roof of a jeep.
Poshepny stories are changeable, and he has changed them from time to time in regard to the collection and dissemination of human body parts. He admits that he collected ears, a practice he kept from his days on Iwo Jima. Heads are a different matter. Sometimes he says he kept the heads of his enemies in formaldehyde; other times he says he put them on stakes, according to local customs, and let the tribespeople throw pebbles at them. Yet other times, he says he dropped them from his helicopter like the round river stones.
"Keep in mind that Tony has a grisly sense of humor," Shirley says. "He once said he was collecting heads for humanitarian reasons. He had been paying a bounty for ears, until he ran into a little boy with his ears missing. The boy said his father had cut them off and sold them. Tony was so shocked, he gave the boy a few hundred kip, and immediately decided he would accept only heads from then on."
It is at this point in the story when the legend of Poshepny and the legend of Kurtz begin to diverge. In Apocalypse Now, Kurtz became estranged from the U.S. government, turning inward as he succumbed to the animal instincts of the jungle. Poshepny surrendered to his wild instincts as well, particularly to his thirst for lao-lao. But unlike Kurtz, Poshepny did not turn inward. In fact, he did not change much from his brutish youth; rather, the mind-set of his country changed. As the Vietnam War dragged on, the Tony Poes, once revered as American heroes, were reduced to bloodthirsty barbarians in their home country's eyes.
In 1975, Poshepny and 800 other CIA operatives in Asia were released from duty. "They kicked us out because they said we were an embarrassment," Poshepny says, still baffled by the turn of events. "We were the ones who won the goddamn war against communism."
Poshepny is still shocked by how he heard America received its veterans, how Gen. William Westmoreland, the overall U.S. commander in South Vietnam, called the war a mistake. "And 200,000 young men burning their draft cards?" he asks with scorn. "Jane Fonda, that bitch, daring to question John McCain? I wish I had been in the country when those college kids were protesting at Sather Gate. I woulda gone down there and beat the shit out of them."
Despite Poshepny's bitterness toward his country's withdrawal of support, even he says he needed the rest. When the CIA cut its agents loose, Poshepny had already served 30 years, the magic number for a fat military pension. He retired to a tapioca farm in Thailand. For the first time in his life he spent time with his wife, his son, and his two daughters. He was still beloved by the Yao people, who lived not far away in Laos. Over time he mellowed, only occasionally finishing off a quart of scotch and swaggering down the streets of Udorn with a loaded .45 Magnum in his belt. In 1980 he was diagnosed with diabetes and drastically cut back his drinking. He returned to San Francisco in 1992 on a temporary visit; the visit became permanent.
Tony Poe had lived to see another day.
"When reporters talk to my father, they write down the silly things he says," Maria Poshepny, Tony Poe's eldest daughter, says at the wedding. "They don't appreciate the fact that he stayed with his people. He took care of them. He didn't just rape the land and leave, like so many others. He didn't just impregnate my mother and fly home. He took her with him."