In the spring of 1970, I made a commitment to wear a POW bracelet. The bracelet organizers had placed the names of all known POWs and MIAs, along with the date of the action on stainless bands. My bracelet said, SSgt William Brown, Nov. 3, 1969.
Several years later I learned that SSgt. Brown had been on a mission into Laos with two other soldiers and a squad of Montagnard tribesmen. They were ambushed by an overwhelming force of North Vietnamese regulars, all three soldiers were wounded, and only four Montagnards were able to report back. SSgt Brown was shot though and though, under the rib cage, and the others were wounded by hand grenade shrapnel. This action was about thirty miles inside of Laos. Severe weather kept the search party away for several days, and when they finally reached the area, they found nothing but some equipment. There were no bodies, no graves, the survivors reported that the Vietnamese had shouted, “Get the Americans!”
Because the U.S. was not supposed to be in Laos there was very little effort to find missing in action soldiers. When the war was over, thousands of individuals could remove their bracelets because the POWs had been freed. Thousands more of the MIAs had also been found with the cooperation of the Vietnamese, and more bracelets could be removed. I had read of bracelets being returned to the families of the POWs, I had also read of bracelets being sent to to families of the MIAs, and in some cases with renewed grief. In my case, there was no chance of finding anything, and my bracelet would remain on my wrist as a constant reminder of the consequences of war.
When the internet allowed data to be researched online, I spent a great deal of time learning about SSgt Brown. He was about four years older than I was, he spoke Vietnamese, and was on his third volunteer tour of combat. I found out about his family, where he went to high school and college. He was from Southern California. Eventually, the story of his mission was posted, information that his mother had pried from Army records. He remained missing in action.
I checked for years, just in case something new had been found. After thirty years I checked not so often. I found a photo of a very handsome young man wearing a ranger green beret. A life cut short, lost in the jungles of Southeast Asia. I continued to wear the bracelet, only now there were very few who knew what it was, and what it meant. A couple of times a year someone wound notice and say something. One time I remember a fellow saying that he had one somewhere, lost in a bedroom drawer with tie tacks and cuff links. A few could remember taking them off with the discovery of remains. That wasn’t going to be my future.
On Memorial Day of 2015, I had a discussion with one of my daughters. Apparently she wanted to know if I wanted to be buried with my bracelet. Well, okay, that was a valid question. I had assumed that I would continue to wear it, even in death. The question came up because two of my daughters were willing to continue to wear the bracelet, making the same promise that I had made. I was never so proud to hear that they understood, I’m not sure how they would decide who gets the honor. Perhaps they would share, one year rotating?
The next day I was reflecting that I hadn’t looked on-line for awhile. After forty years I had basically given up of finding new information. Still, you never know, so I typed SSgt William Brown’s name in Google Search, and I found a burial notice. Remains had been found, DNA identified, along with two dog tags. SSgt Brown’s parents and brother had died without knowing, but a distant cousin was contacted in La Habra, CA. and SSgt Brown had finally returned home.
Now, what to do with the bracelet on my wrist. My promise is that I would wear it until he came home, but now it is so a part of me that I find it hard to take off. Selfish?