Memory, Compassion, Sent from Across the Country
LUNENBURG — When hundreds of miles separated a fallen soldier’s daughter and the commemorative POW bracelet made in his honor, a Lunenburg man stepped in to help.
“I want to make sure it gets to her safely,” said Joe Gaunt as he wrapped the shiny metal band in its packaging.
As Gaunt turned the bracelet in his hand, it caught the light overhead and showed the engraving of Master Sgt. George Brown’s name. Brown was an Army soldier who went missing in Laos in 1968.
Safely tucked away in a cardboard box, the band would soon be on its way to Cleveland, Texas, where Brown’s daughter Rhonda Pitts would pick it up.
Gaunt said he and his wife got the bracelets to support soldiers missing in action from the Vietnam War when they were in high school. The bracelets had been wrapped up for the past 40 years, but Gaunt recently found them while rummaging through some boxes.
After making several calls, Gaunt got in contact with Pitts and told her the bracelet would be sent to her home.
“I think giving this piece of him, to Rhonda, is probably the best thing I can do for her,” said Gaunt. “It’s important to me to return something that we wore in honor of those people.”
“It was a bracelet that he cherished, and he always wore,” said Pitts. “It will be coming from his wrist and it will go straight on my wrist.”
Pitts said she lost most of her father’s possessions during a break-in, which devastated her for years.
“It just added to the loss,” she said.
When she received the bracelet from Gaunt, Pitts said she was overwhelmed to be receiving something closely linked to her father.
“It completes a portion of the puzzle that I thought was lost,” she said. “The treasured it, they prayed for my father, they prayed for my family, and now they’re turning it over to me.”
Pitts said she was only six-years-old when her father went missing during his second tour in Vietnam. On the night he was due to leave, Pitts remembers Brown kissing her and saying that he loved her.
According to reports, Brown went missing in action on March 28, 1968, during a classified wiretap mission when the evacuation helicopter set to retrieve him attempted to leave the area. A rope ladder was necessary because of the dense terrain.
The helicopter came under heavy enemy fire and needed to depart quickly when the ladder became caught in some trees. The ladder had to be cut away, leaving Brown and two other men behind at the landing zone.
Witnesses who last saw the trio said they appeared unharmed and were returning fire. There last known location was Tchepone, Laos.
The news of Brown’s disappearance hit the family hard, said Pitts.
The fallout, she said, included her grandmother taking her own life. Pitts also said it had a severe mental impact on her mother.
“With a missing in action status, you never know if they’re going to come home one day,” said Pitts. “That was always the real trauma for my family because we never know.”
Pitts said the government led her family to believe that Brown could be on the next plane home, which impacted her greatly as a child.
Sitting in front of the television, Pitts waited for hours and read every name hoping her father would be there.
“It was crueler than death,” she said.
When she returned to school, she had to be taken to a doctor after she had rubbed her forehead so much that it bled.
According to Pitts, her father’s remains were first discovered in 2000 but weren’t identified until 2004.
Though the news should have provided Pitts a conclusion, it only added to the frustration and the pain, she said.
When she first received the call from an Army casualty officer, Pitts said he delivered the news impersonally when he said they found “the body.”
The officer told Pitts they found a single tooth and added that they were ready to close out her father’s case.
“I did not want him to insult the memory of my father my calling one tooth ‘the body,’” she said. “People can lose a tooth and not die, but we kept having this battle over whether or not to call it a body.”
Four years later, the officer said the government was going to bury her father with or without her approval. Pitts opted to have the remains cremated and her father was buried at the Magnolia Park Cemetery in Dayton, Texas.
Despite the heartbreak and the frustration, Pitts found hope when someone claiming to have served with her father contacted her.
Curtis Marcum called and told Pitts that he knew her father well. Marcum said he also felt guilty because he was supposed have gone on the mission but he came down with the flu the night before.
Pitts told Marcum that she forgave him even though there was nothing to forgive and the two bonded while talked for hours about Brown.
She said their relationship also brought closure for Marcum, who had struggled with depression after Brown went missing.
Pitts reflected on the past few years and said she was touched by the people coming into her life despite the difficult past.
“The portion of my dad’s story was so painful and so raw and yet other people have come into my life as a result of that pain,” said Pitts. “The whole experience has just really been a blessing.”
Daniel Monahan: dmonahan@sentineland enterprise.com