THE HERO BRACELET

Tags: HeroStories

This is a piece I found on The Canoe Dossier, written by David Newland.

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Last week, I wrote about wandering through the monuments of Washington, DC, seven years after 9/11.

I took a lot of pictures that day, trying to capture the spirit of the World War Two, Korea, Vietnam, and Pentagon memorials, more or less the way any other tourist would.

It's tricky, using photos to represent real situations, real emotions, in real time and space. I doubt I did justice to the day. But the effort was an earnest one: I really wanted to understand the language of the many memorials, the changing ways we look at war, the way war itself has changed, and how people are affected by that.

There are pictures I didn't take, out of respect for the feelings of those who grieved. And there are those I took in an effort to understand better, like this one, where my own reflection appears behind the name of a fellow "Newland" who died on duty in Vietnam.

Of all the shots I took, I think the one that affected me most was this one of a simple, metal bracelet engraved with the words "S/SGT Perry Kitchens - 11.3.70".

The bracelet had been left at the eastern corner of the memorial wall, just where it begins to rise up from the ground. It made a compelling image, and I couldn't help wondering what the story was.

At first, I presumed that the bracelet had belonged to Staff-Sergeant Perry Kitchens, and that perhaps a loved one had left it there. But did that make sense? Why would someone let go of something like that after so many years? And then of course, the date didn't add up: surely, if Kitchens had served in Vietnam, that date represented the date of his death.

So perhaps the bracelet wasn't that of a victim, but of a mourner? I had seen many soldiers paying their respects that day - perhaps one of them had left his own bracelet, and the date was that of his birth? If so, it might represent an expression of solidarity with his brothers-in-arms (maybe even a father-in-arms) who had gone before. Whatever the case, the bracelet spoke to me.

So I did some research online, and found that I was not the only one wondering about Staff-Sergeant Perry Kitchens. I found an archived article from the Austin Chronicle called Full Metal Bracelet: My POW is still missing. Writer Pamela C. Patterson described having worn something called a "POW bracelet" in the seventies, and how she'd wondered about the fate of the serviceman whose name was engraved on that bracelet, until she'd finally seen that same name engraved on the wall in Washington in 1987. That name was Staff-Sergeant Perry Kitchens.

But that didn't solve the riddle of the bracelet: the one Pamela C. Patterson had worn must not have had a date of death engraved on it, because she didn't know Perry Kitchens had died until the late eighties. And her article was dated 1997 - presumably, had she been inclined to leave the bracelet at the memorial, it would have been left long ago.

I kept digging. On this home-made website dedicated to Maine POWs, I found mention of Kitchens' name, and at least a plausible version of the story of his death: the landing craft he'd been on had capsized under "mysterious circumstances." Only one crew-member's body had been recovered at the time; Kitchens wasn't found until 1977 and the rest of the crew remains unaccounted-for. The mystery is elaborated at a site dedicated to the crew of LCU 63.

A further search casts doubt on the "mysterious circumstances." A website dedicated to Sgt Richard Dority, the "adopted MIA" of the site's author, Cathy Keating of Jacksonville Florida debunks some of the discrepancies of the supply boat's sinking, but remains deeply respectful of the deaths of those involved and the fact that many of the crew are effectively still Missing in Action.

The virtual version of the Vietnam wall reveals more bare facts about Kitchens: that he was black, Protestant, 22 years old, married, from Decatur Georgia, and had indeed died by drowning. On his message page, there are heartfelt wishes of a number of caring citizens - at least two of whom also wore Perry Kitchens' POW or hero bracelets. Perhaps one of them left the bracelet I photographed on September 11, 2008 at the Vietnam Memorial. Perhaps there are others who still cherish this connection to a man they never knew. Not to mention Kitchens' widow - imagine the agony of the seven years spent without certain knowledge of his death.

In the digital age, we can access information like this as fast as we can enter terms in a search page. But the instant results belie the years and the tears family, friends, and caring strangers spent wondering, waiting, and grieving for this young man and so many thousands of others.

Right in the middle of the Vietnam years, I was put up for adoption by a teenage mother. An unrelated symptom of that era - but it means I know what it's like to wonder if someone important to me is alive, or dead for decades, and to spend years in fruitless searches. I also know what it's like to search in the digital age, and to learn the blunt facts of life and death via Google. Those who search for lost loved ones and missing heroes today are grieving at the speed of light.

As for that: your can take a photo in only 1/125th of a second, but the meaning of the image can last a lifetime. I may not wear a hero bracelet, but I know that of the tens of thousands of names I walked by at the Vietnam Memorial, it's Perry Kitchens' I'll remember from now