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Agent Provocative 

In the 1960s Anthony Poshepny was a CIA operative whose macabre Southeast Asian exploits drew comparisons with Col. Kurtz, the megalomaniacal anti-hero of Apocalypse Now

Wednesday, Nov 17 1999
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"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."

As she says this, Maria eyes her father suspiciously. Although he had triple bypass heart surgery just last year, throughout the day, his friends have been covertly pouring cognac into his Diet Pepsi. He has grown warm and bolder, beckoning those around him for more. Next to Poshepny sits Wern Chen, his No. 1 lieutenant in the Yao tribe. I ask the solemn man to describe Poshepny's connection with the Yao people, but before Chen can answer, Poshepny silences him. "Farang," Poshepny says, using a derogatory word for foreigner and pointing to me. All the men laugh. I don't get an answer, and soon Poshepny unceremoniously leaves the celebration, steps into the rain now coming down in sheets, and heads home to the Sunset.

About The Author

Matt Isaacs

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