nam.jpg

Kathy Strong has worn a bracelet engraved with the name of a young soldier missing in Vietnam — a man she never knew — for more than 35 years.

WALNUT CREEK — She’s never met him, and it’s likely that he’s dead. Yet Kathy Strong feels a powerful bond with James Leslie Moreland.

He was a Green Beret in the Vietnam War who has been Missing in Action since Feb. 7, 1968. Strong has worn a bracelet engraved with Moreland’s name for more than 35 years, fulfilling a promise she made when she received it to keep the simple stainless steel band on her wrist until he returned home.

"I was in seventh grade when I put the bracelet on," said Strong, a 47-year-old Walnut Creek resident who works in Richmond. "He was missing almost five years by the time I got the bracelet."

She received the trinket Christmas Day 1972 in her stocking. It was one of about 5 million bracelets made to remind Americans of the more than 2,500 military personnel who were missing or prisoners during the Vietnam War.

Moreland, who lived in Anaheim, is one of 1,788 troops still missing from that war. Of those, 179 are from California.

Dating back to World War II, there are about 88,000 troops unaccounted for, said Capt. Mary Olsen, spokeswoman for the Defense Department’s Prisoner of War-Missing in Action, or POW-MIA, office. Currently, four soldiers are missing in Iraq.

"I was very young when Vietnam was going on," said Strong, who lived in Southern California when she received the bracelet. "I don’t really understand a lot of the politics behind it. But personally, I don’t believe we should go to any other war until we get our men back from the last war."

As Strong grew into adulthood, she gradually learned more about the man who has been a presence in her life for decades.

Through research in books about Vietnam, Strong found that Moreland was seriously injured and presumed dead at age 22 in the battle at Lang Vei. When she marked the 40th anniversary earlier this month of the last time he was seen alive, Strong decided to make her story public to remind people in Contra Costa County and the country that there are still hundreds of American military personnel missing and that she and others are keeping their memories alive.

"I’ve never been to Vietnam," Strong said. "But I still feel a connection with my MIA as well as the others who were with him the night he died."

Paul Longgrear, Moreland’s commanding officer, survived the battle and now lives near Atlanta. Longgrear shed light on Moreland’s probable death in a phone interview with the Times.

After being attacked, Longgrear, Moreland and a handful of other men retreated into an underground bunker, said Longgrear, 64. Moreland was a medic in the small mobile strike force.

Moreland climbed up to retrieve a machine gun, said Longgrear, who was 25 at the time.

"While he was there," Longgrear said, "a tank shot at him and shattered the back of his head with shrapnel. It was a very devastating wound, but he was a tough kid."

Moreland lived through the night and was injured again when the enemy began blowing up the camp, Longgrear said. The officer and his men decided to make a break for it.

"When we got ready to go," he said, "Moreland was unresponsive. The best we could determine, he was dead or wasn’t going to live. Everybody was wounded, and we were kind of limited in what we could do for each other."

Longgrear and some others were picked up by a special forces helicopter. A few men were captured.

"Moreland’s body was never found," Longgrear said. "He was a great kid. We used to have a lot of fun. He was a good-looking kid, about 6-foot-1, 185 pounds. He had a real cocky attitude. We all did. We were Green Berets — thought we were 10 feet tall and bulletproof."

Longgrear said that he and other veterans are glad that people such as Strong have worn their POW-MIA bracelets for all these years, in honor of their fallen friends.

"It makes me very appreciative of someone who loves America and appreciates a person who would go and sacrifice their life," Longgrear said. "I think it’s wonderful that this young lady cares enough not to give up hope. And that’s what I think the bracelet symbolizes — that we will not forget you."

Strong said she would like to meet Moreland’s family, but Longgrear said he doubted the family would be receptive. Moreland’s sister contacted Longgrear twice to talk about her brother.

"I know his parents are dead," Longgrear said. "It’s very difficult. It’s such an emotional thing. The whole family became a victim because when you’re missing (someone) like that, there’s no closure."

The League of Families of American Prisoners and Missing in Southeast Asia has continued to pressure the government to bring the remains of their loved ones home. The original group that sold the POW-MIA bracelets disbanded in 1976.

But the Ohio chapter of the league has revived the effort, selling bracelets with the names of about 100 missing troops who served in Vietnam. Their families have given permission for the sale. In addition, bracelets for Navy Capt. Scott Speicher, missing from the 1991 Gulf War, and Army Sgt. Keith Maupin, a prisoner of war in Iraq, also are available.

Liz Flick, who distributes the bracelets for the chapter, said she and others she knows have been wearing their bracelets as long as Strong.

"It is very definitely a brotherhood of those of us who wear the bracelets," she said. "If you’re out and you see someone with the bracelet and you hold up your wrist, it’s an immediate connection — like yes, you’re working on this, too."

Strong said she’s happy to know that there is a network of people like her in the country. And if Moreland’s remains are not recovered in her lifetime, she is determined to die with the bracelet still wrapped around her wrist.

"It’s just a promise I made to this person, and it’s a promise I intend on keeping." Strong said. "I could take the bracelet off, and probably no one would notice. But I would know."

More information about military Prisoners of War and those Missing in Action is at http://www.pow-miafamilies.org or http://www.powmialeague.org and http://www.dtic.mil/dpmo.

Details about Special Forces killed in Southeast Asia are at http://www.sfahq.com.

POW/MIA bracelets can be purchased by sending a check or money order for $10 to Ohio Chapter MIA/POW, Attn: Mrs. Liz Flick, P.O. Box 14853, Columbus, OH 43214.

Source