COLUMBUS, Ohio — The indentations in Richard Lerch’s wrist are deep. His arm has grown a bit over the past 30-plus years; the steel band that has ringed it all that time did not.
Still, he never took off the bracelet. To do so, Lerch said, would have dishonored a man he never met, who fought a war he barely remembers.
And that he would not do.
The POW/MIA band bears the name of U.S. Air Force Col. Francis Jay McGouldrick and is inscribed with Dec. 13, 1968 — the date McGouldrick’s plane went down over Laos during the Vietnam War.
Millions of those bracelets — each with a name of a captured or missing American service member — have been sold since an awareness campaign started in the late 1960s. The Ohio Chapter of the National League of POW/MIA Families sells the bracelets today.
The intent then and now was to remember the troops and to keep the POW/MIA issue at the forefront of a nation’s mind, a visible reminder that not everyone is home.
Lerch, now a 51-year-old North Side resident, was a young mechanic with his high-school history lessons still fresh on his mind when he ordered his. He requested that it honor an Ohio serviceman. He randomly received McGouldrick’s name.
When Lerch learned that McGouldrick’s remains had been recovered after 45 years and returned to the family in Columbus, he wasn’t sure what to do.
“Col. McGouldrick became a part of me, his story became a part of me. He served his country well and now, to know he’s finally home, well ....” Lerch said before giving in to his tears. “What an honor it’s been to wear his name.”
McGouldrick’s four daughters are planning a December burial at Arlington National Cemetery and a memorial service in Columbus early next year. But Lerch, as well as readers who contacted The Dispatch after the McGouldricks’ story ran in Monday’s edition, wonder what to do about the bracelets.
Liz Flick, the National League’s regional co-coordinator in Columbus, suggests that people do whatever is in their heart. Should they want to take it off now and return it to the family, she said they should contact the U.S. Air Force Service Casualty office and make arrangements to have it delivered.
Others already have reached out. Florida lawyer Patrick Krechowski was 16 when he visited a traveling Vietnam Memorial Wall in North Carolina. His father, an Air Force pilot, was stationed at Pope Field in Fayetteville, N.C., so he asked for a bracelet honoring an Air Force pilot. Krechowski, too, got McGouldrick’s name.
When Krechowski, now 41, saw the recent news about McGouldrick online, he searched for relatives. He found daughter Megan Genheimer and then, with her permission, sent her the bracelet. He wrote: “It saw me graduate from high school … it traveled with me throughout Europe and heard me argue my first case as a young lawyer. It witnessed my wedding and the births of my two children. It climbed Angel’s landing in Zion National Park, Utah, and it helped me complete my first marathon and later run my fastest yet.”
Krechowski told The Dispatch in an email that he is happy for the family but sad to see the bracelet go.
“The Colonel’s bracelet was an inspiration to me many times during the years I had it,” he wrote. “I would think of him, what he may have gone through, and, of course, of his family. I am so grateful for his family that they have their father home. It really is an amazing story that warms my heart. I hope to never forget the Colonel.”
Lerch’s bracelet will go to the family, too. Then he will order another one with the name of someone who still has not come home.
McGouldrick’s daughters say they’ll probably put the bracelets they receive in their father’s casket. What isn’t so easy is deciding what to do about their own.
Maybe they’ll take them off at Arlington. Maybe later. Maybe never.
“I don’t know,” daughter Mitch Guess said while fiddling with the slender silver band. “It’s been a part of me so long, I cannot imagine letting it go.”
Bracelets of missing American troops can still be purchased from the Ohio Chapter of the nonprofit National League of POW/MIA Families for $15. More information can be found at www.pow-miafamilies.org.