A true experience about a Vietnam soldier's bracelet.
A Forgotten Soldier’s Bracelet
by Carrillee Collins Burke
When the Vietnam Memorial mini-wall came to my Ohio hometown in April, 1990, and was set up in the municipal park, I went to see it.
I waited until 2 a.m., thinking I would be alone when I walked down the flag-lined path to the wall that was bathed in floodlights. However, I found myself surrounded by grieving people, including veterans in camouflaged uniforms and a Vietnamese family placing white roses on the ground next to framed photos, letters, medals, and other personal items. Everything was lined up under the white names, names engraved there in no alphabetical order, reflecting the War, having no beginning and no end. The names stood out conspicuously in white against the stark-black background.
Suddenly I realized I didn’t identify with the people around me. I lived through the war, but I didn’t lose anyone close to me. So I didn’t feel what these grieving people felt. I wanted to understand their pain and frustration. I entered the information tent and asked for an MIA bracelet. A bracelet would put me in touch with a particular soldier. I was very disappointed when I was told that I had to order one.
Then from the back of the tent, a huge man, dressed in jungle fatigues, walked forward. “Is this what you want?” he asked, lifting his arm for me to see the shiny band he wore.
“Yes, I think so.”
“What will you do with it?” His dark, piercing eyes glared at me from a face encased in a halo of curly shoulder-length, rust-colored hair.
His expression showed his troubled concern.
“I’ll wear it, of course,” I answered.
“Are you sure? Some people sell them as souvenirs.”
“Oh, no! I’ll wear it,” I promised him.
“Okay, then,” he said, and removed the steel band from his massive wrist and very gently pressed it around my slender one. “He’s a good guy, this lost friend of mine. Wear it kindly. Please.”
“I will,” I said.
Wrapping my fingers around the cold steel, I read the soldier’s name aloud: S/Sgt. James M. Ray. When I asked the big man his name, he smiled and said to just call him, Vet.
I knew this old bracelet was different than ones I’d seen lately. The name and date was engraved into the steel. Newer ones were painted. Vet had worn his friend’s name for a long time. Our conversation had been to the point, a little bit stilted, but he said what he wanted to say without mincing words. I understood that he wanted to share his friend with me.
The bracelet had made S/Sgt. Ray a real person to me. I would wear it as promised. But that wasn’t the end of it. I was to discover more about James by an odd twist of fate.
Two years later, I wrote an essay about the bracelet for a magazine contest. One of the judges recognized James’ name and called his mother in California. She also sent her a copy of my essay. On Thanksgiving eve of that year, Jean Ray called me. We talked about her son.
I learned his middle name was Michael. He was born on November 10, 1949. He was tall with blonde hair and hazel eyes, and answered to Jimmy. He served in the 525 Military Intelligence Div. of the U.S. Army and was 19 when captured on March 18, 1968, one day after my thirty-fourth birthday. He was awarded the Silver Star for gallantry in action for escaping twice and each time thrown back into solitary confinement; then wrapped in chains and tortured beyond what he had endured before. He was wounded when originally captured and later was ill with malaria.
Jean Ray said Vet was one of Jimmy’s army buddies. After Vet was discharged, he drew attention to the MIA cause by traveling around the country, standing for hours in a cage-like box on busy highways to get media attention.
When Vet visited Jean shortly before she read my essay, she noticed the bracelet that had never left his arm was missing. He said he lost it. She said, “I now know he gave it to you.” She told me that my bracelet was different because she had personally made it along with many others. When I asked if she’d like to have it back, she answered with a quick, “No, no. There’s a reason Vet gave his bracelet to you.” She told me that a famous sports figure also wore the same bracelet, but that I was the only person she knew of so far east that had one.
Later, she sent me a copy of Jimmy’s Silver Star Award, a photo of him, copies of letters from POWs who returned in 1971 and 1973, and copies of correspondence from government officials.
A released POW reported to the Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs on July 29, 1986, that he was probably the last person to see or talk to Jimmy. He said: “One day in December, 1969 the guard unchained him to go bathe. Along the trail, he stopped me to look for a bucket in order to draw water from a shallow well. Since I was unchained, he told me to squat down. That is when I saw a Caucasian man lying in a hammock with both his feet and arms over the sides.
“We were forbidden to talk openly, so he and I communicated by saying words between coughs and yawns. Sometimes, because the guard couldn’t speak English, we would say something indirectly to one another.
“He said his name was Jimmy Ray and when talking about family he mentioned California. I wasn’t able to find out if he meant his mother and father were from California. We constantly tried to find out information about one another in camp, out of a sense of caring and curiosity.”
That was in December, 1969. No other prisoner saw him killed or buried, yet our government declared him dead on November 6, 1969.
If alive, that brave teenager would now be a man of 58 years.
I still wear the bracelet in honor of this young soldier who went to war, never returned and was never accounted for. I not only wear S/Sgt. James M. Ray on my wrist, but I carry him in my heart.
*His number on the Vietnam Memorial Wall is Panel 45 East, Line 28.