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Keeping the Promise of a POW Bracelet

<i> Address TimesLink or Prodigy e-mail to </i> YQTU59A (<i> via the Internet: </i> YQTU59A@prodigy.com)

Jeanne had worn the bracelet for. . . well, she isn’t sure how long. At least 20 years. She wore it to bed, she wore it in the shower.

“I don’t take it off. I mean, I literally don’t take it off.”

Not once in more than 20 years?

“Once it got caught on something,” she recalled, “and it’s bendable, and it came off.”

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Jeanne took the pledge seriously. It was a POW-MIA bracelet, a silver talisman of concern and hope from the Vietnam War. Jeanne decided she would wear the bracelet until that POW came home, or that MIA was accounted for.

She’s 55 now and lives in Studio City. Back then, Jeanne was in her early 30s--married, three kids, living in Stockton. As political statements, the bracelets were open to interpretation. Truth is, Jeanne didn’t have a strong opinion about the war. Nobody close to her was involved.

“I didn’t like the fact that anybody was getting killed. I can’t say I was for the war or against the war. I didn’t pay that much attention.”

But the bracelets intrigued her--a small gesture, a way “to do my part,” to show that, whether the war was right or wrong, she cared. She sent away for one--any one, the name didn’t matter. She thinks the donation was $2.

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Only when the bracelet arrived did the name matter to Jeanne. Silver in color, it was inscribed: Lt. Col. Charles Shelton. Also noted was the date of his disappearance: 4-29-65.

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Before long the POWs started coming home, but Shelton wasn’t among them. Jeanne always followed the news about the POW-MIAs, looking for his name, wondering if his death would be confirmed. For several years she wore the bracelet and knew virtually nothing about the tale of Lt. Col. Charles Shelton. “Somehow I always felt, if I took it off, nobody would ever remember him.”

Then, in about 1980, Jeanne stumbled upon a story in the newspaper promoting the theory that Lt. Col. Shelton, an Air Force pilot who was known to have survived a crash in Laos, was still alive, perhaps still held prisoner. It mattered little that Pentagon officials said that their best intelligence reports, while unconfirmed, indicated that Shelton had died in captivity long before the United States halted its involvement in the war.

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And Jeanne learned something else about Charles Shelton. The Department of Defense, in the process of reclassifying MIAs as KIA / BNR (killed in action / body not recovered), had decided that one man--Shelton, by then promoted to full colonel--would remain classified as a POW. Reagan Administration officials said Col. Shelton would live on, if not in fact, then in spirit as a symbol of the nation’s commitment to accounting for the missing.

Jeanne’s bracelet thus became a symbol of hope for a symbol of hope.

The stories would tell Jeanne more about the Shelton family. There was his wife, Marian, and five children. Having been widowed herself in 1976, Jeanne could feel for Marian. How hard it must be to not know whether you were wife or widow.

The stories said Marian Shelton lived in San Diego. Sometimes, Jeanne thought she should track down her address and send her a note. She felt guilty that she never did.

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Perhaps you know the sad climax of the Shelton family saga. Marian Shelton received many notes from strangers. She was never lacking for support. There was the love of her children and warm feelings of friends and strangers. But not all the support was healthy, and her hope was abetted by alcohol and increasingly bizarre conspiracy theories about her husband’s whereabouts.

On Oct. 4, 1990, more than 25 years after Charles’ disappearance, with a blood alcohol level later found to be nearly four times the legal limit for driving, Marian removed the gold POW-MIA bracelet that bore her husband’s name. Then she carried a handgun into her back yard and put a bullet in her head.

Jeanne learned about Marian, but continued to wear her bracelet. By then she had remarried and was living in the L.A. area. Last October, she came home from work and her husband said there was something she had to see. Then he put on a videotape of that day’s “Today” show.

It was a report about how the Department of Defense had honored the request of the surviving Shelton family--three sons, two daughters--to have their father reclassified as killed in action. This was, they had agreed, the best way to put the family’s tragedy where it belonged--in the past.

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“Maybe now you can take that bracelet off,” Jeanne’s husband said.

But Jeanne couldn’t quite bring herself to do it. After more than 20 years, just taking it off didn’t seem like the right thing to do.

This week, she sent me a letter, remembering an article I’d written about the Shelton family.

“I would like to send the bracelet to his family in the hopes they would find some comfort knowing that he was not forgotten,” she wrote. She asked for some assistance.

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John Shelton, the 38-year-old middle son, and I have played phone tag the last couple of days. He left a message expressing his appreciation for Jeanne’s kindness.

I told Jeanne I wanted to write about her and her bracelet. It occurred to me that maybe we should put a picture of Jeanne and her bracelet in the newspaper.

But no. “I like to blend in with the wallpaper,” Jeanne explained. She didn’t want attention; she wanted peace of mind.

I told her I’d just print her first name, and that was OK with her.

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She wondered why I wanted to write even one word about it. To Jeanne, it’s not much of a story at all.

Scott Harris’ column appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays.


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