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The POW-MIA bracelet

by Suze Gray Williams
| November 11, 2010 8:00 PM

I didn't wear a POW-MIA bracelet during Vietnam. I didn't know anyone who was a prisoner of war or missing in action. But for years I was haunted by rumors that there might be prisoners still remaining in Southeast Asia. It was hard enough learning of the torture and brutality our men endured, but to think we might have left anyone behind to rot in the jungles of Vietnam was too horrible to imagine. When I began to research the subject, I discovered that the bracelets were again being sold by several veterans' organizations. I couldn't send in my $9 fast enough.

On Jan. 28, 1970, en route to rescue two downed pilots, Sgt. Gregory Lee Anderson's helicopter was hit by a MIG and crashed over North Vietnam. All on board were presumed dead, but Sgt. Anderson's remains were never found, leaving a haunting doubt. Today, we are connected by a half-inch wide metal cuff inscribed with his name, rank and the date he was lost.

Carol Bates Brown and Kay Hunter, two students at California State University, Northridge, originated the idea of the bracelets. As members of Voices in Vital America (VIVA), a nonprofit student group, the two women felt compelled to help raise awareness about the plight of missing servicemen after meeting with the wives of missing pilots. The first POW bracelets were sold on Veteran's Day, 1970, and cost $2.50, the price of a movie ticket. They soon became popular with teenagers and celebrities alike. Sonny and Cher even wore them on their television show. While VIVA sold close to five million bracelets before closing in 1976, it is estimated that there are now eight and a half million in circulation.

"At one point we were receiving $30,000 a day for bracelets," Bates Brown recalled recently. She had no idea the bracelets would become such a phenomenon. "We had to hire a Brinks truck because people were stealing our mail." Just as meeting the wives of the downed pilots had put a human face on the POW/MIA issue for the two college students, the bracelets personalized the issue for the American public. Every bracelet came with a warning: "Don't wear one unless you want to get involved." Maybe that was the reason for their popularity - people wanted to get involved.

According to the NAM-POWs, the organization for all POWs who have returned home in honor from captivity, at least four women married "their guy," the men whose bracelets they wore. Suzanne was a flight attendant based in London when she wore a POW bracelet. After "her guy," Lt. Bill Bailey, USN (Ret.), returned home, they exchanged letters, and a few months later, while he was traveling in Europe, Bill decided to take Suzanne up on her offer to show him London. Suzanne admitted that she felt compassion for him for the six-year ordeal he had endured at the hands of his North Vietnamese captors, and she was just trying to be nice. For Bill's part, he just hoped they would be friends and had no intention of dating her. It was love at first sight, and they are still happily married today.

When someone bought a bracelet, they agreed to wear it until the person came home or his status was determined. If "your guy" was a returning POW, you sent his bracelet to him. Lt. Bailey received more than 3,000 bracelets accompanied by letters from his bracelet wearers. He read them all, finally resorting to a form letter to respond.

When I asked a friend if she knew about the bracelets, she left the room and returned a minute later with one in her hand. Although Leesa took it off when the war ended in 1973, after 37 years and a dozen moves, she still knew exactly where to find it. Infused with cherished hopes and enduring dreams, the POW bracelet is not something that gets recycled. When I found information confirming that "her guy" had died in the war, Leesa cried for the man who has been in her heart all these years. The war may have ended, but not the caring.

I will never have the opportunity to meet Sgt. Anderson or send him his bracelet, but he will never be forgotten. His name is etched on panel 14W, line 073 of "The Wall," just as it is etched on my bracelet. I will never lose hope that one day Sgt. Anderson's family and the families of the other 1,800 men still unaccounted for will learn the fate of their loved ones.

I still tear up when I see a POW/MIA flag, and the only bumper sticker on my car has the POW/MIA logo: a prisoner with bowed head, barbed wire and a guard tower in the background. It reads, "For those who fought for it, freedom has a flavor the protected will never know." For me the war will not be over until everyone comes home. Until that time, the POW bracelet serves as an enduring symbol of support, honor and remembrance.

Suze Gray Williams is a Sandpoint resident.

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