Sept. 15 observance will include woman with long connection to those ‘missing in action’

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This Contra Costa Times newspaper article told the story of Kathy Strong.

The nation’s POW/MIA Day will be on Friday Sept. 15, and Edmonds will also observe the day for the first time at the new Edmonds Veterans Plaza at 5th Avenue North and Bell Street. The event will begin at 6:30 p.m. The guest speaker will be Joe Crecca, an Air Force F4C Phantom pilot who spent six years as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam.

One of those attending the POW/MIA Observances at the Edmonds Veterans Plaza Sept. 15 will be Kathy Strong. Kathy is not a resident of Edmonds, but she has a unique connection here, just as she does to certain places in Mississippi, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Georgia, Kentucky, Alabama, Virginia and North Carolina. She hopes to eventually have that same connection in places like ours all across the United States.

Kathy Strong’s quest is all about those who are still “Missing In Action.” Thirty-eight years ago, when she was 12, Kathy found a stainless steel bracelet in her Christmas stocking. It was engraved with the name of a Green Beret missing in action: Spec. 5 James Moreland 2-7-68.

These simple bracelets engraved with the names of those missing in action were all the rage in the last years of the Vietnam War. Everyone from Ronald Reagan to Sonny and Cher wore them. But that fad, like most, eventually faded away and the bracelets, if not lost, were consigned to the backs of drawers in bedroom dressers. Kathy Strong’s was an exception.

She made a vow, the day she put on her bracelet, that she would never take it off until the remains of James Moreland — a man she had never met — were found and properly interred. To give you an example of how strong her commitment was, when Kathy injured her left wrist, where she wore the bracelet, later in life, the surgeon told her it would have to come off to perform the operation.

Kathy delayed the operation and found another surgeon, a Vietnam veteran who understood. On the operating table, he had her clasp her hands together and he slid the bracelet from her left wrist to her right, ensuring that it would never leave her body. Later, after the swelling subsided, the same surgeon simply reversed the procedure and returned the bracelet to her left wrist.

With the introduction of the Internet into our lives, Kathy was able to learn more about the person whose name she had worn on her wrist for so many years.

James Moreland had been a paratrooper and medic during the Battle of Lang Vei, a Special Forces outpost near Khe Sanh Combat Base. In the dead of night, on Feb. 6, 1968, as part of the Tet Offensive. the North Vietnamese Army mounted its first armored offensive of the war. At least seven tanks and a large infantry force had managed to sneak up on Lang Vei, which was defended by two dozen Green Berets and a few hundred indigenous troops.

As the tanks broke through the perimeter wire, Moreland was hit in the head while trying to retrieve an M60 machine gun from the camp’s observation tower. He was dragged into an underground command bunker where six or seven Green Berets held out all night and into the next day, even as their camp was overrun and grenades were dropped on them.

By the time they were able to escape, everyone in the bunker was wounded. His comrades were unable to carry him out. Moreland, who had become delirious and struggled against them, had to be sedated with morphine. Some accounts say that he was still alive when the Green Berets fought their way out, others say that he was already dead. It was too risky to go back to recover his body.

On June 5, 1978 Moreland was legally declared dead and posthumously awarded the Silver Star for gallantry in action. The Internet also led Kathy to Moreland’s two sisters who lived in, of all places, Seattle. They promised to contact Kathy if there were any new developments.

Twenty years passed before a survivor of Lang Vei was able to guide searchers to the bunker where Moreland was last seen alive. Human remains were found and sent to Hawaii to await DNA testing to identify them. In January 2011, she finally got the call from his sisters that “James is coming home.”

At his funeral on May 14, 2011, Kathy Strong removed her bracelet for the first time and placed it in Moreland’s coffin. A soldier in attendance gave her a Special Forces bracelet to replace it. She put it on her right wrist and has not removed it.

Kathy is still committed to the cause she’s supported for so many years and has this to say: “That’s what faith is all about, believing in something you cannot see.”

And in a POW/MIA Recognition Day speech he delivered during his years as Secretary of Defense, Leon Panetta had this to say about Kathy: “Kathy Strong should inspire us all,” he said. “For it should not just be a few among us that help families carry the torch year after year, decade after decade, for those who are missing; it needs to be all of us.”

Kathy Strong’s paving stone commemorating James Moreland’s ultimate sacrifice will be placed in the Edmonds Veterans Plaza on Friday Sept. 15, during the POW/MIA Day observance.

Washington will be her tenth state. Only 40 to go.

 — By Richard Simmons, VFW Post 8870

P.S. With the advent of conflicts in Afghanistan and the Middle East, there has been a resurgence of interest in MIA bracelets. They can be engraved with the names of those classified as missing in action from wars dating as far back as World War II. For more information, visit the National League of POW/MIA Families.

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