RETURN TO AMERICA, 1973-1997

FEATURES:
Peterson family
Peterson runs for Congress
Nomination as U.S. Ambassador to Vietnam

click to enlargePeterson family
Life in America in the years following his release from prison included many new opportunities and challenges. After serving 26 years in the U.S. Air Force, Peterson retired as a full Colonel in 1981 and joined the private sector. The Peterson family initially settled in Tampa, Florida where he started a construction company.

click to enlargeThree years later, Dougie, the son Peterson had not met until he was seven years old, was killed in an automobile accident. "It just collapsed our lives," he said. Peterson's wife, Carlotta, was diagnosed with breast cancer on the very same day. She became a valiant crusader for a cure for the disease that would ultimately take her life.

Following his son's death, the family moved back to its "home town" of Marianna, Florida. There, as a member of the Florida State University faculty, Peterson turned his attention to a program for juvenile offenders. During his headmastership of the Dozier School for Boys, he battled Florida officials' efforts to close the school. He won the battle, and it became the stimulus for his subsequent interest in politics.

Peterson runs for Congress
In 1990, Peterson, then 53, decided to run for U.S. Congress to represent the 2nd Congressional District of Florida:

It was really cold turkey. If I had sat down and weighed the pros and cons about the work that was going to be required--how many people were going to get involved, the mobilization, the fundraising--I would have never done it. What I did was ignore all of those things and just said, "I can do this."

click to enlargeIn an unpredicted upset, Peterson beat the incumbent and went on to serve three terms as a member of the United States House of Representatives from 1990 to 1996. Peterson first returned to Vietnam in 1991 as a member of Congress investigating U.S.-Vietnamese progress on the MIA/POW program.

Carlotta's health continued to deteriorate, prompting Peterson to commute weekly between Capitol Hill and Florida. He took on many of the household chores. "I became a great cook. Linguini was my best recipe." Shortly after Carlotta's death in 1995, he announced he would not seek re-election for a fourth term.

Nomination as U.S. Ambassador to Vietnam
One day, shortly after that announcement, his colleague in Congress, Bill Richardson, approached him and suggested he consider becoming the first U.S. ambassador to Vietnam in 22 years. Peterson decided to take the gamble. He was nominated by President Bill Clinton in March, 1996.

The appointment met with strong opposition on Capitol Hill. It wasn't Peterson himself who was in question, but the issue of whether to re-establish diplomatic ties with the United States' former enemy, Vietnam. Senator Jesse Helms, (R-North Carolina), Chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, and Senator Bob Smith, (R-New Hampshire) opposed Clinton's decision to normalize relations with Vietnam. POW/MIA groups and Vietnamese-Americans also made their opposition to normalization of relations with Vietnam very clear.

click to enlargeThe stalemate went on for over a year. In April, 1997, on the eve of the balloting on the nomination, no one was certain the votes needed for confirmation would be there. Then a last minute compromise on the wording of a specific POW/MIA issue was worked out. The nomination passed with a unanimous voice vote.

"How often does one have the chance to return to a place where you suffered and try to make things right....the opportunity to make something good out of something bad.. Ultimately I decided I couldn't pass up the opportunity to do something that is very rarely given to someone. I took on the challenge and I'm very happy I did so."


The Man: Peterson
Experience as POW | Return to America | Return to Vietnam

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