Jeanne and I found it about a year ago in an antique store on Maybank Highway in Charleston, South Carolina. A Vietnam era POW/MIA bracelet with the name LCDR James Beene and a date, 10-5-1966. It was in a case with old military buttons, medals, and coins. I had worn one of these as a teenager in the 1970’s, albeit with a different name etched on it.
I think that I was initially bothered by seeing it in the display case with a price tag. This was not, at least to my thinking, something that should be for sale. After walking around the store and looking at all manner of antique collectibles, I came back to a sales associate and asked for the bracelet. I didn’t think it was right to leave it sitting in the case.
Perhaps I should explain two things here. The first is that the idea for these bracelets came from two college students, Carol Bates and Karen Hunter in 1969 as a way to draw attention to the missing men of the Vietnam conflict without getting drawn into the politics of the day. (You can read more about how the idea of the bracelets became a reality clicking here: Bracelet ). The bracelets originally included the name, rank, and date of loss of the service member. The idea was to wear the bracelet until the person whose name was on your wrist came home. Second, I am the son of a Naval Aviator who served on active duty and in the reserves from the mid-1950s to the mid-1970s. The name on the bracelet, James Beene, was a Naval Aviator, a contemporary of my father’s. I spent almost 24 years as a naval officer; I feel a connection to anyone who has worn or is wearing the uniform.
Lieutenant Commander James Alvin Beene, USNR was a native of Burbank California. He was a member of Attack Squadron 152, Carrier Air Wing 16 aboard USS ORISKANY (CVA-34). On October 5, 1966, he was the pilot of a Douglas Attack Skyraider (A-1H), serial number 137610, on armed reconnaissance over the coastal area of North Vietnam. His aircraft disappeared after he entered the clouds during the mission.
I was wondering what I should do with the bracelet. Should I try to return it to the family? Was there a group to which I could send it? I knew I did not want to put it in a drawer and forget about it. After discussing it with Jeanne, we decided that I should bring it with me on my next trip to Washington, D.C. and leave it at the Vietnam Memorial Wall at the base of the panel that bears LCDR Beene’s name.
I know that items left at the Vietnam Memorial Wall are collected, cataloged and conserved. The collection will serve as part of the display for a planned Visitor Center. Perhaps this bracelet could find a home in that collection.
At the beginning of July, I was scheduled to conduct a brief at the Defense Health Headquarters in Falls Church, Virginia, just outside of Washington, D.C. I traveled to the area the day before my presentation to give me time to get into the city in the early evening. There was a METRO station close to my hotel, so I took the train into the city and walked down to the Mall on a hot, humid evening.
I found James A. Beene’s name on panel 11E, row 48. I carefully laid the bracelet at the base of the wall. While there, I noticed other things left behind in memory of some of the more than 58,000 names of Americans killed or missing from that conflict. Along the wall were a few long stemmed roses as well as a handful military medals from the Vietnam era scattered along the base of the Wall. There were people carefully taking rubbings of names off the wall onto paper provided by volunteers. There were veterans, in silent contemplation, lingering near panels.
I didn’t want to stay too long. I had delivered the bracelet that I had for almost a year. It was time to wander back to the METRO station at Foggy Bottom and head back to my hotel. As I walked through the streets of Washington, I couldn’t shake the thought of the loss of all those service men and women in that conflict. Many of the families still do not have answers about their loved ones. We, as a country, owe it to those who gave their lives in service to this nation to gain as full an accounting as is possible. It is the very least we can do for those who gave the last full measure of their devotion.