By Theresa Harrington
Wednesday, May 25th, 2011 at 8:59 am in Walnut Creek.
For Kathy Strong, wearing an MIA bracelet for 38 years was an act of faith, as well as an act of patriotism.
She put the bracelet on at age 12 after receiving it in her Christmas stocking and promised to wear it until the soldier whose name it bore — James Moreland — came home.
At that time in the early 1970s, thousands of people throughout the country wore similar bracelets bearing the names of soldiers who were Prisoners of War or Missing in Action in Vietnam, through a program honoring the commitment not to forget them. Many people did see the soldiers return alive. For others, the remains were found and returned to their families.
As the years passed, most people removed the bracelets, considering them a fad. But not Strong. She kept her commitment and said she often thought about what that it would be like to meet Moreland.
On the 20th anniversary of the date Moreland was last seen alive in Lang Vei, Vietnam, Strong’s hometown newspaper in Sherman Oaks, Calif. published a story about Strong and her bracelet.
“I dream of him coming off the plane and there would be all these people waiting to see him,” then-28-year-old Strong told the Daily News on Feb. 7, 1988. “I’d be there, no matter where he was landing, no matter how much money it would take to get there. I’d go there to meet him.”
After that story was published, Strong said it was emotionally difficult for her to re-read it, because she feared her dream would never come true.
On the 40th anniversary of Moreland’s disappearance, I wrote a story for the Contra Costa Times about Strong and her bracelet. Thanks to the Internet, it reached Moreland’s sister in Washington state, who contacted me and asked to meet Strong.
For that story, I contacted Moreland’s commanding officer, Col. Paul Longgrear. After I told him that Strong said she would love to talk to him about Moreland, he also agreed to meet her.
Strong felt a much closer bond with Moreland after these meetings, and she continued to hope and pray that the military would one day discover some trace of what happened to him.
A few months ago, she saw a basket at her church containing small “impossible rose” prayer cards, with tiny fabric roses attached to them.
She took a card and wrapped the stem of the rose around her purse, praying for Moreland’s return. Later, when she heard that Moreland’s remains had been found, she brought that rose with her to Alabama, where the funeral was held.
When the plane with Moreland’s remains touched down, Strong was there to meet it.
“It didn’t turn out exactly as planned,” she said, recalling her earlier dreams of meeting Moreland alive. “But, I did get to meet him at the airport and I did get to see him come off the plane.”
She stood by as the coffin was loaded into the hearse.
“Before they closed the door, I said: ‘Wait!'” Strong recalled. “I just had to touch it, so it would be real that he was home. That was one of the most special parts of the whole weekend to me. That definitely seemed like an answer to a prayer.”
Strong’s sincere commitment to leaving the bracelet on for so long on has inspired many who have read about her in the newspaper or seen stories about her on the television news.
The story also brought back memories to a retired doctor, who played a key role in Strong’s ability to keep the bracelet on.
Dr. Daniel Morgan, an orthopedic surgeon in Fremont, let her wear the bracelet during wrist surgery in the summer of 1985.
“I wore my bracelet on my right wrist for about three months,” she said. “Dr. Morgan had me place my wrists together and then slid my bracelet from my left wrist onto my right wrist without my bracelet leaving my body.”
After seeing Strong’s story on CBS news earlier this month, he called her and said that fate played a role in their lives.
“He told me he was proud of me and that I was meant to be his patient and he was meant to be my doctor,” Strong said. “He allowed me to keep it on an extra 26 years.”
People who don’t know Strong are also proud of her. Her story seems to strike a chord with people because she embodies character traits that most people hold dear: faith, hope, love, honor, respect, integrity and patience.
When she attended Moreland’s funeral in Alabama, several people gave her mementos, such as Green Beret medallions, an embroidered pillowcase and a framed certificate from the Khe Sahn veterans commending her “unwavering vigil” for Moreland.
On behalf of the funeral Honor Guard, Chief Warrant Officer Chris Golling sent Strong an e-mail after the ceremony, expressing gratitude for her commitment to remembering Moreland.
“We are truly honored to have met you,” wrote Golling, who grew up in Oakland. “It touches each of us how you have held out hope all these years and honored SFC Moreland, a brother to us all. Thank you, Kathy.”
A retired Air Force Chief Master Sergeant who served in Vietnam wrote to Strong from Lakewood, Wash., after reading about Strong and Moreland’s homecoming in the newspaper.
“I am not ashamed to tell you that I was overcome with deep emotion,” he wrote. “In part, it was because all such homecomings are tragic, and one cannot help but think, ‘that could have been me.’ But mainly, what brought tears to my eyes was the knowledge that there are still people in the world like you; people whose steadfast loyalty to, and honoring of, our fallen warriors is a most wonderously great and shining example to all.
May I therefore tell you how proud I am to claim you as a countrywoman of mine, and say that I, on my own and on behalf of many other veterans, feel humbled by such devotion? While in Vietnam, our military and our political leaders often referred to a ‘light at the end of the tunnel’ as a simile for the resolution of that conflict. But in my mind, your 38 years of faithfulness to a code of remembrance far outshines anything they could have imagined. Thank you, Miss Strong.”
Strong is humbled by such praise for doing something she knew in her heart was right. And she is grateful that, in a way, she has been able to meet Moreland by meeting his family and those who served with him.
“My impossible prayer was answered,” she said.
Here is a video of her speaking about the experience:
Does Strong’s story touch you?