When Kathleen Bearden was 13 years old, she and several friends bought Prisoner-of-War bracelets to support American troops fighting in the Vietnam War.
Those who bought them were to wear them every day until the POWs whose names were on the bracelets were returned to the United States. The bracelets then would be sent to the servicemen or women to let them know they hadn't been forgotten during the war.
Kathleen's father was a professor at Valdosta State College, where she remembers student activists both for and against the war demonstrated frequently in that turbulent time. "This so-called ‘military action' touched many of us deeply, and we felt that wearing the bracelets was about the best students our age could do to support the troops," she said.
Her bracelet bore the name of Lt. Col. Dwight E. Sullivan, reported missing in action Oct. 17, 1967. She continued to wear her bracelet faithfully for several years, hoping to eventually hear he had been returned safely. All her friends who had bought the bracelets when she did had heard about their POWs.
As time passed with no word on her serviceman, Kathleen wore the bracelet less frequently, but never failed to put it on Oct. 17 every year. Last month, the 41st anniversary of Col. Sullivan being reported missing in action, she as usual pulled it out of her jewelry box and wore it to work at Northeast Georgia Diagnostic Clinic.
A co-worker, Dr. Jeff Terry, asked about it, and Kathleen told him the story. He suggested she try to find the fate of her missing military officer on the Internet. She told him she had tried that several years ago without success. Terry encouraged her to try again.
Kathleen did and this time found her man. To her delight and amazement, Col. Sullivan is alive and actually returned to the United States in 1973. But her task to return the bracelet was just beginning because there was no information how to contact him or address for her to mail the POW bracelet. In addition, her continued search on the Internet found numerous listings for Dwight Sullivans in numerous locations.
Wondering what to do next, Kathleen told her story to a patient, who suggested researching historical organizations that might have invited the Vietnam-era hero to speak. Bingo! She found him listed as the speaker last July 4 for an Independence Day celebration in Corydon, Iowa, his native state. The article mentioned his current residence in Arizona.
Her hands shook as her further Internet detective work discovered his telephone number and address. After much thought about what she would say, Kathleen called him Oct. 24.
"He was very cordial and seemed pleased to have been contacted," she said. She learned he and his wife have eight children and are great-grandparents.
Col. Sullivan was flying an F105 on a bombing run northeast of Hanoi when North Vietnamese shot it down. Injured and captured, he became missing in action Oct. 17, 1967. It would be another 5 1/2 years, March 14, 1973, before he and 107 other prisoners of war were released from the "Hanoi Hilton" prison.
Asked his reaction to Kathleen's telephone call, Col. Sullivan said, "I was very surprised after all these years. It touched me the most that she wore the bracelet on the day I got shot down."
Although over the years he has received about 300 POW bracelets, most of them shortly after he was released, "I never get tired of it. I'm so appreciative of it," he said.
Sullivan, 78, retired after 27 years in the Air Force. That meant even more to Kathleen because both her parents were in the Air Force when they met and married.
"I was very emotional as I ended our call," Kathleen said, "as it was rather like closing a very important unresolved chapter in my life." She is sending her bracelet to Col. Sullivan in a small box with an American flag on it.
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Footnote: Another Hall Countian is still around after appearing in the movie, "Birthright," made in the Harmony Hall community in the early 1950s. He is Charles Westbrook, son of Mrs. Hugh Westbrook and her late husband. Charles, now a Southeastern sales executive for Tyson Foods, was the baby in the film. He was 3 months old. His father was manager of Farmers Mutual Exchange at the time.
Johnny Vardeman is retired editor of The Times and can be reached at 2183 Pinetree Circle N.E., Gainesville, GA 30501. His column appears Sundays and on gainesvilletimes.com.