The Punchbowl

I have written about the POW bracelet in a previous blog. At that point I had only found out about the return of Sgt. Brown’s remains. The following is an excerpt from a recent sermon where I discussed the events of returning the bracelet to a marker at the Punchbowl National Cemetery in Honolulu, Hawaii.

In the spring of 1970 a placed a POW bracelet on my arm, and I took a pledge that I would not remove it until the prisoner had returned home. Many thousands were distributed and quite a few remained on people’s arms until the Vietnam War ended and the prisoners were returned. 

I watched many news reports that returning POWs had received bracelets from thousands of concerned American, some against the war, and some who just end wanted the soldiers home.

I watched as others were able to take the bracelet off. I could not. The Army tried to take it off in Basic Training, then they found out what it was, and ordered me to keep it on. Within the first year I realized that the sergeant that I was wearing was not a prisoner, he was MIA, or missing in action. The promise I made was that his body must return before I could take off the bracelet.

As the years passed, more and more MIAs were identified, and those bracelets came off. Mine did not. I found out that he had been on a secret mission in Laos when he was last seen alive, wounded but still alive. We weren’t supposed to be in Laos, so we couldn’t search for bodies in Laos.

Five, ten, fifteen, twenty, thirty, forty years passed. I could not take the bracelet off. So much time had passed that no one even knew what the bracelet was. A couple of times I met a few who did recognize it, and when I asked when their people came home, they said that they didn’t, and the bracelet was still in a drawer somewhere.

The very act of wearing the bracelet had gotten stale and meaningless. I’m not telling you this because I am a “promise keeper”, because I’m not. I have broken more than my fair share. But this one, this one promise I wanted to keep. I wanted to keep it alive, even if my soldier was long dead and forgotten. It even got to the point where my daughters wanted to know if I wanted to be buried with it.

It was a morbid question but I asked why, and they said that they wanted to continue to wear the bracelet in my stead. To honor the soldier and me.

This was last Memorial Day and I hadn’t checked for a few years on the search or the status of his remains, so I pulled up Google and typed in his name.

I couldn’t believe it….Three years earlier, a cigarette lighter, some dog tags, and enough DNA was found to positively identify Sgt William T. Brown. He was returned in 2013 and a ceremony had taken place in his hometown as well as Arlington National Cemetary in Washington. I could remove the bracelet. He came home!

Now…what do I do with it? I had heard that the families didn’t always like to be reminded, besides, I found out that his parents and brother had died without knowing. There was a cousin, but that didn’t seem right. I could just keep wearing it.. No, that wasn’t right. I could put it in the jewelry drawer. That really wasn’t right. I read where people left them at the Wall in DC. I could do that.

Then I found out that there was a memorial to my sergeant at the Punchbowl National Cemetery in Oahu. I was going to Oahu, so that was settled.

I wanted to share this with you because it was very important to me, but also connected to the point of this sermon. It is important to take a stand for what you believe. People will know you for the stand you take.
The bracelet was a very public statement of what I believed, and while i am imperfect, at least in this one regard I was fulling a forty-five year promise. I went to the Punchbowl’s Office, to find the location of his name. I couldn’t find it, it wasn’t in the computer or any of the books, so I had to ask a gentleman behind the counter. He was older, grey hair drawn into a ponytail. He was weathered, fit, and probably a veteran.

I explained that this sergeant of mine was not a family member, that I had worn the bracelet for forty-five years and now, since his remains had returned, that I wanted to place the bracelet on his marker.

And this is where it all connects. This gentleman knew what I was doing, it had probably happened to him before, he even had a good idea where to find the missing marker. But he stopped and shook my hand while real tears ran down his face. In that moment he knew what I believed. And interestingly, I knew what he believed as well.

We found the marker, and the entire family that was present spent some time honoring the sergeant that had died so young, and didn’t have the chance to have a family. 

I flattened the bracelet and placed it on a small ledge below the marker. Promise fulfilled.