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Austin Chronicle Full Metal Bracelet

My POW is still missing.

By Pamela C. Patterson

NOVEMBER 17, 1997:  Recently, while re-arranging the trinket boxes on top of my dresser, I came across a piece of jewelry I haven't worn in years. It is a simple, nickel-plated bracelet, embossed with the name of a person I've never met.

It reads "S/Sgt. Perry Kitchens 11-3-70." It is my POW bracelet.

In 1970 I was 10 years old going on 11. That fall I entered the sixth grade; the war in Vietnam was a remote reality. Although the TV news brought the horror into our living room night after night during the dinner hour, I just didn't think a whole lot about it. I watched the reports of atrocities and the latest U.S. casualties with equanimity. Whenever anything particularly grisly came on the screen, I could feel my mother's eyes on me, looking for a reaction; my face betrayed no emotion.

Although I was not disinterested in the war, neither did it consume me. I suppose that was because Vietnam hadn't touched me or my family personally; we had no relatives or friends who'd been drafted. Besides, I was too young to care very much; the war had begun when I was barely able to read, and the only reason I was even aware of it at age 10 was because I had grown up on a steady diet of Walter Cronkite.

Sometime in 1971 my mother became involved with the Rochester chapter of POW/MIA families. She volunteered at their headquarters downtown, answering phones, stuffing envelopes, distributing bumper stickers and buttons. She met some of the wives and mothers and sisters of men who were prisoners of war or missing in action in Vietnam. And she got her own family involved.

Part of the program to create community awareness of the plight of POWs and MIAs in Vietnam entailed the distribution of POW bracelets. These were stamped with the name of a POW or MIA and the date he was taken prisoner or declared missing. The idea was to wear the bracelet until the war was over and all U.S. servicemen were released from POW camps or otherwise accounted for.

Mom bought POW bracelets for all four of us, and we put them on as soon as we got them. Each of us had a bracelet with a different name on it. I can't remember now what the other names were; mine, however, quickly became ingrained in my memory.

Who was this Perry Kitchens person? I tried to picture him in my mind. What did he look like? Where was he from? At my tender age, I thought he must be very mature, probably married with a couple of children. He would certainly be tons older than I was. As I discovered much later, however, he was only 21 when he disappeared in Vietnam. Just a kid.

I wore my POW bracelet faithfully, not even removing it to shower or swim. It is plainly visible on my wrist in all the family photos from those years. I was still wearing my POW bracelet in 1973 when the United States pulled out of Vietnam and some former POWs came home to a hero's welcome at the Rochester airport. The occasion was bittersweet, for although I was happy for the men and their families, I was also older then and wise enough to realize that the withdrawal of U.S. troops was not truly a cause for rejoicing. The war seemed suddenly very sad and pointless, even more so because Perry Kitchens, my Perry Kitchens, was still missing.

I vowed not to give up on him until he was accounted for. I decided that I would wear this bracelet for the rest of my life, if necessary, until one day the nickel plating finally started to wear off and the bracelet made my skin itch like crazy and I had to take it off. I put it in my jewelry box. Once in a while I'd try wearing it again but the rash always came back, so eventually I put it away for good.

I didn't think about Perry Kitchens again until 1987, when I was in Washington for three days and made my way over to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

Although I hadn't worn the bracelet in over 10 years, I had no trouble recalling his name. I went straight to the register so I'd know where to find him. Seeing Perry's name chiseled in the smooth stone made him more real to me, his MIA status more final. As I reached up to run my fingers across the letters, I began to cry. I stood beneath his name, his memory, wondering if his family had ever been there and realizing I had no tissues in my purse. I hadn't planned on tears.

I have been back to the memorial twice since then. I always go first to the panel bearing Perry's name, kissing my fingertips before standing on tiptoe to touch the letters, so high that they are almost beyond my reach.

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