My family has a long and proud military history. My Father, cousins and several uncles all served during World War II. One uncle even served in the first World War. Fortunately for our family, they all came home. Ever since I can remember, I’ve been a student of military history. My Father was a school teacher and one of my earliest recollections was reading about World War II in an out of date Encyclopedia Brittanica that he’d brought home from school. I read books, listened to relative’s stories both serious and humorous and generally learned as much as I could.
In 1987, I was a nineteen year old college student living at home and commuting to school 3-4 days per week. As such, I had plenty of time to work my part time job at a local Grand Union grocery store. I had been there several years and typically worked in the produce department. The store was small and I got to know many of my customers by name; on a personal level. It got to the point where many would ask me to prepare them a basket of items that I thought were fresh. There was this one couple who came in frequently. He was a Vietnam Veteran and we used to talk a bit about that war although he was generally fairly reserved about it. He and his wife both wore maroon POW/MIA bracelets on their left wrists. Having such a close connection to that conflict, they had the bracelets soldered together, only to be cut and removed when the serviceman was returned or identified. I thought it was a kind and fitting gesture, so I asked them to get me a bracelet and if possible, have it be from a New Jersey native.
A few days later they returned to the store with two bracelets; Anthony J. Piersanti, Jr. from Pennsauken, NJ and Lewis H. Abrams from Montclair, NJ. I put the bracelets on then and there and although I didn’t solder them closed, I wore them constantly. They were always a conversation starter and I hoped somehow my little show of respect would be appreciated somewhere by someone. Each Memorial Day weekend, I made sure the bracelets were on 24/7 no matter what I did or where I went.
I didn’t know much about these two men. There wasn’t much to know. This was pre-internet, pre-Google……hell, I didn’t even know where Pennsauken was! I went to my local library – yes, we still did that in those days – but that turned up very little and then on a trip to Washington, D.C. I visited the Vietnam Memorial Wall and located each man on their panels. I did pencil rubbings of each soldiers name and saved the rubbings. I’ve been back to the Wall many times since and always find these two men and run my fingers over their names.
Both men were pilots, Piersanti in the Air Force and Abrams in the Marines. Both were lost over Vietnam, one over water and one over land. I didn’t think they were POWs and was pretty convinced they had given the last full measure of devotion for their country. Both servicemen were decorated and Abrams received the Navy Cross. Nevertheless, the news occasionally included stories of POWs being released so I continued to wear them in tribute.
Then one lazy, summer day in early August 2010 it hit me like a bolt of lightening. I can now use the Internet to look these guys up. Why I had never thought of this earlier was beyond me, but I was at my office and when it hit me, I cut lunch short and hustled back to my desk. Nothing significant turned up for Piersanti but I immediately got several hits for Lewis H. Abrams, one of which was a “Virtual Wall” with information about Lewis. Clearly it had been curated by his family as their were many details about the man and his life including the fact that his remains were located in 1997 and he had been returned and now lays at rest in Arlington National Cemetery. Then, at the bottom of this virtual wall was the following: “A Memorial Initiated by His Family” followed by an email address.
Within minutes I had fired off an email to a John Abrams explaining who I was and letting him know that I appreciated his Dad’s sacrifice and that I had been wearing his Father’s bracelet since 1987. I never really thought much about it or expected a response. I just wanted him to know that someone was thinking about and recognizing his Father. It was an odd, generic email address and I was sure my note would end up in the ether, but at least I tried.
The next morning when I got to the office an email was waiting for me from John Abrams. He thanked me profusely for contacting him and had spent the night calling his family to relay my message. John was one of 4 children that Lewis had before he was lost in action. His wife raised the children on her own as they were varying ages (teenagers) at the time of Lewis’ death in 1967. All of these years, each of the children wore a POW/MIA bracelet bearing their Father’s name and information. He could not believe that I had been wearing his Dad’s bracelet for 23 years. He asked if he could call me and so I replied that it was my honor to have worn the bracelet and sent him my phone number.
A little while later he called, crying. His emotion palpable. It was early August and his Father’s birthday was upcoming (8/17) and his family was on the precipice of a long planned reunion in Florida. He told me that he and his siblings each wore their Dad’s bracelet but that his mother didn’t have one. Would I part with mine? That afternoon, I sent an overnight Fedex to John once again returning Lewis to his wife.
So today, please realize that as you head to the beach, or the lake, or a barbecue, or a baseball game – no matter what you do – remember those who have fallen to give you the freedom to do it. And for the families and Veterans out there, know that people you have never met or even heard of are thinking of you and support you. Today as I sit here relaying this story, on my left wrist rests Captain Mark G. Danielson from Colorado. Lost over South Vietnam on June 18, 1972. He too has since been identified and returned but you Sir, are not forgotten.