By Jeanne Theismann
ALEXANDRIA,VA- The words “hero” and “courage” are used far too often. And in the case of Capt. Eugene “Red” McDaniel, neither word accurately describes the horrors he endured as one of the most brutalized prisoners of war in Vietnam.
During McDaniel’s 81st combat mission, his A-6 Intruder aircraft was shot down over North Vietnam on May 19, 1967. McDaniel was captured and would spend six agonizing years as a prisoner of war in the infamous “Hanoi Hilton” prison. In the face of unrelentingly barbaric and sadistic torture, McDaniel remained a source of hope and strength for his fellow POWs by clinging to his faith in even the darkest hours.
“There is no feeling quite like knowing you are in a strange country, surrounded by a people who know no rule but death to the enemy,” said McDaniel of his time in captivity. “Still, the one thing they could not take from me was my faith. There were many times in my lonely cell when my victories were known only by me and God.”
McDaniel was listed as Missing in Action for three years while his wife, Dorothy, and children, Michael, David, and Leslie, did not know if he was dead or alive. Finally, in 1970, the Hanoi government acknowledged that McDaniel was being held prisoner. After six years in captivity, he was released on March 4, 1973.
When McDaniel came home to Virginia, he was awarded the Navy’s highest award for bravery, the Navy Cross. His other military decorations include two Silver Stars, the Legion of Merit with Combat “V,” the Distinguished Flying Cross, three Bronze Stars with Combat “V”, and two Purple Hearts.
McDaniel resumed active duty, serving as Commanding Officer of the USS Niagara Falls and as the Commanding Officer of the aircraft carrier, USS Lexington. He also served as Director of Navy/Marine Corps Liaison to the U.S. House of Representatives before retiring from the Navy in 1982.
Following retirement from the Navy, McDaniel settled his family in the Mount Vernon section of Alexandria. He wrote a book, Scars and Stripes, recounting his time in captivity and how his faith kept him grounded. Dorothy McDaniel published her own book, After the Hero’s Welcome, detailing her experience as the wife of a POW and advocate for nearly 20 years following her husband’s return.
During this time, McDaniel founded the Alexandria-based American Defense Institute, a nonprofit organization to increase awareness among young adults of the need for a strong national defense. Still active today, ADI provides citizen education and leadership training for young Americans. Its POW Awareness Program focuses on American servicemen who are still missing in Southeast Asia.
Ahead of his time
Long before the Aging in Place movement became popular, McDaniel saw a need to change the face of aging and to help people remain independent for as long as possible. To him, the first step to extending independence was being able to live at home.
In 1994, McDaniel helped to found Adult Companion Care (now known as ACCfamily, Inc.) after his own struggles to find quality home care for a family member. Headquartered on North Fairfax Street in Old Town, ACCfamily is a senior home care agency whose vision is to allow people to stay in their home for as long as they desire. ACCfamily still operates in Alexandria, but has grown to serve seniors in southern Maryland and throughout Northern Virginia.
Through the founding of Adult Companion Care and its growth into ACCfamily, McDaniel’s vision for seniors in Alexandria provides an option that many had thought was lost to them: the ability to age in place with independence and, most important, with dignity.
From serving country to serving community
McDaniel was the oldest of eight children born to poor tobacco sharecroppers in North Carolina. He attended what was then Campbell Junior College, and then Elon College, on athletic scholarships. On his first night at Campbell, in September 1950, he met Dorothy Howard, his future wife.
“Dorothy had a grace and poise that made me want to be around her,” McDaniel recalled. “It wasn’t only her beauty, charm, and poise but her character and sense of values, which were deeply rooted in her belief in God.”
For more than 37 years, McDaniel has been a respected and productive member of the Alexandria business community through his two enterprises, American Defense Institute and ACCfamily. He was able to triumph over unimaginable circumstances and return from serving his country to honorably serving his community.
“People think courage is the absence of fear” McDaniel said. “But courage is the presence of faith.”
At 87 years, McDaniel is still active and in demand as a speaker. He and Dorothy raised three children and have nine grandchildren and two great grandchildren. “I saw a need and an opportunity to serve people,” McDaniel said. “I don’t consider what we do a business. I consider it a ministry.”
Living Legends: The Initiative
The mission of Living legends of Alexandria, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, is to identify, honor and chronicle the lives of individuals who have made significant contributions to improve the quality of life in Alexandria. This initiative was conceived and the organization founded in 2006 by 2015 Living Legend Nina Tisara in order to create an enduring, documented record of the people whose vision and dedication made a positive, tangible difference to the quality of life in the City of Alexandria, VA. For information, to volunteer, become a sponsor or nominate a future Legend, visit www.AlexandriaLegends.org or contact AlexandriaLegends@outlook.com.