This blog posting is not about me, even though my picture is the first thing you see. I dusted off my 1973 college yearbook (I'll let you do the math) to locate one photo that would place this story in historical context.
Notice the silver bracelet on my left wrist. When this photo was taken, I had been wearing the bracelet continuously for about a year, ever since it arrived in a package marked POW/MIA Bracelet Campaign. Other students on campus were wearing them to draw attention to America's prisoners of war and missing in action in Vietnam, and I wanted to join them. I mailed 2 dollar bills and 2 quarters to the LA-based student organization and waited for 4-6 weeks.
The nickel-plated bracelet is as shiny today as the day it arrived.
I remember rubbing my fingers over the name and date, wondering about Major Ralph Balcom. Where was he from? Did he have a family – wife, children, parents, siblings? What happened to him on May 15, 1966, the day he was officially listed as lost or taken prisoner. There was no internet to search in 1972, no way to learn about the man whose name I would wear around my wrist for the next two years.
Yet I wore it with pride, feeling an almost personal connection to a man I knew virtually nothing about and would never meet. As years passed, however, Major Balcom and the bracelet faded from my memory and into the depths of my jewelry box. I would occasionally recall his name at the mention of the Vietnam war, but then let it slip back, unexplored, into the past.
Then two weeks ago, that all changed.
Drew and I were in Washington D.C. with a day to explore the major sites. Walking from the Washington Monument to the Lincoln Memorial, I noticed on the map that the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall was nearby. The names of all 58, 318 service men and women who died in the war are engraved on the wall.
Could I possibly locate Major Balcom?
I flipped through the pages of the alphabetical directory located at the beginning of the wall's long, black expanse. My finger slowed as I reached Ba, Bal, Balc...and there it was – Colonel Ralph C. Balcom, panel 7E, line 61. The "date of casualty" matched the date on my bracelet, 5/15/66.
Past thousands of names, each with its own intensely personal story, I found panel 7E and counted down from the top to line 61.
Thanks to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Virtual Wall, I can finally see Colonel Balcom's face and share basic information about him.
421ST TAC FTR SQDN, 388TH TAC FTR WING, 7TH AF
United States Air Force
Declared dead 12/27/1977
Promoted when in MIA status
On this Memorial Day, I give deep gratitude for a name on a bracelet, to a man who died in service to his country, and to a connection between us.
As I share Colonel Balcom's story, may we all share stories of service men and women...
so they are remembered and honored.