In 1970 people who didn’t want us to forget those men who were POW/MIA (Prisoners of War or Missing in Action) in Vietnam started selling metal bracelets containing the names of servicemen who were in one of those categories and the date they went missing. In each case, the family of the missing man gave permission to have a bracelet made with his name on it. The idea was to wear the bracelet until the man came home, one way or another. After the war ended most people gradually quit wearing them and they disappeared into waste baskets or sock drawers, often to be forgotten and never seen again. A small number of people kept wearing them in honor and respect of those men, and the many others who served.
I never bought a bracelet because where I worked at the time they were seen as a “political statement against the war”, which never made sense to me. State employees were not permitted to wear anything that would do so at work. One of my brothers, Irv Lester, purchased two bracelets in 1970 and always wore them. The man on one of the bracelets, Capt. Michael Chwan, who was shot down near Hanoi on 9-30-65, had his remains identified in 1985, and he was buried in Arlington. The original idea was to return the bracelets to the man or his family when they were returned. However, his family didn’t want them back, so Irv kept wearing his.
The other bracelet bore the name of Lt. Col. Joseph Christiano (promoted while MIA to Colonel), who was shot down on 12-24-65, Christmas Eve, while flying on a mission over Laos. Since we were never officially at war with Laos, and there was no treaty to allow us to look for remains, it was many years before any crash sites were investigated in Laos. Earlier investigation of the site where “Spooky”, their AC47D gunship, went down were unsuccessful, but finally remains were found in 2011 and definitely identified in 2012. The remains of Col. Joseph Christiano and his 5 crew members were buried together in a single casket in Arlington. However, I didn’t learn of the identification and burial until about a month ago.
This is especially important to me because of the bracelets that my brother Irv wore. In 2005 Irv had surgery for bladder cancer and I was with him in California at that time. The surgical team said that the bracelets needed to be removed for surgery, but I finally convinced them how important they were to him and that they really had to stay on. They wrapped them in gauze and tape so there would be no danger of shock or infection and he went to the operating room with them on. They were still there when he came back out. In 2006 Irv was in Chicago and dying of the cancer, which had metastasized to his lungs and brain. I knew the two bracelets were going to his two adult children. I copied the information from the bracelets and got a tattoo of them on my right wrist. I came back to his apartment and told him that when he couldn’t wear the bracelets any more I’d wear them. He let me know in very colorful language that I wasn’t getting his bracelets, but that Eric and Danielle were. I pulled up my sleeve and showed him the new ink. We laughed together and cried together, and hugged for a long time, talking about friends who we’d lost there, friends who came home whole, and those who came home damaged in mental and physical ways.
The bracelets will obviously be on my body until they throw my ass in the fire and place my ashes in the sacred ground of the Memorial Rose Garden at Grace Episcopal Church here in St. George. I’m often asked about them, and, sadly, few people remember when many people wore them. Of course to younger people the Vietnam War is ancient history, something they read about in a text book, as I learned about the War to End All Wars that I wrote about yesterday.
I wear the bracelets to honor my brother’s faithfulness and to honor all who have served in the military in peace and in war.
God Bless all who have served, and do serve our country.