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Hempfield woman honors Marine she never knew

GREENSBURG, Pa. — The stainless steel bracelet Roxanne Dreher slipped onto her right wrist more than 40 years ago is battered, its lettering barely visible.

She put on the Missing In Action bracelet as a freshman at Springdale High School in 1971 to honor the man whose name is inscribed on it: Sgt. Orval Skarman.

A 20-year-old Marine from Duluth, Minn., Skarman was declared missing in South Vietnam on Jan. 15, 1968, a month before his tour of duty was up.

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Precisely five years later, the United States announced a suspension of attacks against North Vietnam. And 40 years ago today, the Paris Peace Accords were signed by official delegations of the United States and North Vietnam, though fighting continued until the last Americans evacuated Saigon in April 1975.

“I decided to make a commitment to wear (the bracelet). It was pretty much the thing to do at the time,” said Dreher, 56.

Ads for the bracelets — 5 million were sold in five years — urged, “Please order a POW/MIA bracelet and pledge to wear it until your soldier comes home.”

Dreher did, with three exceptions.

High school officials twice told her to remove the bracelet before sports events. During her Sept. 4, 1976 wedding, she briefly entrusted it to the pocket of the groom, Terry.

Otherwise, she has not parted with the bracelet, even through multiple surgeries when doctors agreed to cover it with gauze.

“It’s almost like an appendage,” said Dreher, of Hempfield, a district manager for Curves.

“I’m not sure it was so much a personal commitment with the soldier as it was support of the cause — keeping faith that these guys were coming back,” she said.

“It was a time that was so tumultuous. The Vietnam War was such an ugly war,” she said. “I get worried sometimes people will stop telling the stories.”

1,600 missing

The Defense POW/Missing Personnel Office lists 1,600 Americans who served in Vietnam as missing. Skarman remains on that list, said Maj. Carie Parker, director of public affairs.

“That is a presumptive finding of death. It means (a soldier) has not been identified and the family does not know his whereabouts,” Parker said.

One of Skarman’s two sisters, Karen Wipson of Duluth, was amazed to learn someone still wears a bracelet with his name.

“I even quit wearing mine. That does not mean I don’t think about him,” she said. “I’m very impressed. Thank (Dreher) for thinking about him.”

Officials presume Skarman, heading to China Beach on leave, “hitched a ride” aboard a Marine CH-53 helicopter that crashed on Jan. 8, Parker said.

“We know nothing,” Wipson said. “(He disappeared) about a month before he was supposed to come home. Mom had the freezer full of things he loved.”

The Marine’s mother, Anne Skarman, 97, is “still a pistol,” Wipson said.

Seven years after he was classified MIA, the family had Skarman declared dead and held a service. They provided DNA samples for comparison if remains are ever found, Wipson said. “The Department of Defense assured my mother they would never quit looking,” she said.

“He was a good, all-American, nice-looking boy, lots of fun. Any mother would have loved him for a son,” Wipson said. “He decided he wanted to go to college, but he wanted to get (service) out of the way.

“Some people are not meant to be old. He is 21 in my mind. ... We never felt like victims, ‘Woe is me,’” she said.

John Wicklund graduated with Skarman from Denfeld High School in 1965.

Wicklund, of Colorado Springs, recalled Skarman was “as typical a kid as you could find. He loved playing baseball on the sand lot by our houses and was good at it. We always wanted Orv on our team,” he said.

“I joined the Navy almost exactly the same time as he joined the Marines, and I never saw him after that,” Wicklund said. “I, too, continue to wear Orval’s bracelet on my wrist, and it will be with me until I die.”

A priceless thing

Parker said the POW/Missing department often gets calls from people hoping to return bracelets to soldiers’ families. If an address can be found, the office returns them.

Dreher has never tried to contact Skarman’s family.

“It’s not about me. It’s about me being able to tell the story through this little piece of steel,” she said. “Every time I hear the ‘Star-Spangled Banner,’ or Pledge of Allegiance ... I remember to pray for him and keep all soldiers in my heart.”

Unless a family member asks for Skarman’s bracelet, Dreher will keep wearing it.

“It’s the most priceless thing I own. It’s probably the proudest thing I’ve done,” she said.

Mary Pickels is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-836-5401 or mpickels@tribweb.com.

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