By Joan M. Burda for Next Avenue
In 1972, when I was a student at Bowling Green State University in Ohio, a small ad in the BG News offered the chance to buy a POW/MIA bracelet. The going price at the time: $4. I bought two. The bracelets arrived in a small package. I sent one to my sister, Janet, and put the other on my right wrist. Mine was engraved with a name: Capt. Charles Bifolchi (later promoted to Major). And the date he went missing in Vietnam: 1-8-68. Thus began a 44-year relationship with a man I never met.
Bifolchi’s mom sent me a letter telling me about her son. He was from Quincy, Mass. He wasn’t married when his plane went down. She enclosed a newspaper clipping bearing a grainy photo of the young man she prayed for every day. I wrote back and promised I would wear the bracelet until he came home. Over time, I learned more about what happened to the person whose name I wore on my wrist. And I waited.
Charles Bifolchi was on a U.S. Air Force reconnaissance mission — the navigator on a RF-4C Phantom reconnaissance jet with the 16th Tactical Recon Squadron at Than Son Nhut Airbase in South Vietnam — when the base lost radar and radio contact. The wreckage was located the next day but it was too dangerous to recover the crew. Bifolchi was 25.
Keeping an MIA Commitment
Capt. Bifolchi became part of my life. I wondered if he were still alive. I wondered if he would ever come home. From time to time, I would look at the bracelet and talk to him. I envied my sister when she watched the soldier whose name was on her bracelet walk off a plane of returning POWs.
As decades passed, people would notice the bracelet and ask, “Are you ever going to take that off?” Others would ask if I knew him and then say, “Why do you still wear it?” The answers were always easy: I owed him that much. I promised his mother. I wanted to make sure that he was remembered, thought about.
During the mid-’70s, while I was in law school at Pepperdine University in California, I worked at Disneyland in security. The dress code limited jewelry to class and wedding rings and watches. My bracelet did not fall into an allowable category. But no one told me to take it off.
Most of the people who worked in the department were former military or active duty military working part-time jobs. Some were in the reserves. They all understood the significance of that bracelet.
Fixing What’s Broken
The original bracelet broke in half in 1980. I carried it with me in my pocket until I could figure out a way to repair it. A few years later, I was in Washington, D.C., visiting The Vietnam Memorial and found my answer. I walked along the remarkable slab of black granite looking for the panel with Bifolchi’s name among the 60,000. I found it and stood there touching the bracelet and tracing his engraved name. At the end of the wall, a Vietnam vet sat behind a table displaying a variety of flyers, photos and information. One of the flyers caught my eye — it was about POW/MIA bracelets. There was an order form and instructions.
I filled out the form and mailed it with the information on my bracelet and explained what happened to it. Ten days later, a small package arrived — and with it my new metal bracelet. I took the original out of my pocket and placed the new one on my right wrist and silently renewed my promise to Capt. Bifolchi and his mother to wear it until he came home. Decades passed.
Waiting and Hoping
There have been times when I removed the bracelet for medical procedures. Once, a TSA agent required me to remove it before going through security at the Akron airport. She did not know the significance of the bracelet; the other agents at the checkpoint knew, and their displeasure was apparent on their faces. People continued to ask when I was going to take my bracelet off. My answer, as before, was always the same: when Capt. Bifolchi came home.
For many years, I scanned newspaper articles about the recovery of remains in Vietnam. But the names never matched the one on my bracelet. When the Internet arrived, finding information became easier. I found information — comments from people who knew him — but no news. I waited and hoped.
Found at Last
In March 2016, my spouse came home and handed me a sheet of paper. “They found him,” she said. It was a press release dated Oct. 26, 2006. I had missed it. He had been home for 10 years.
Bifolchi’s remains were recovered sometime between 1993 and 2000. A positive identification was made after his Aunt Louise provided a DNA sample. She died in December 2005 without knowing the results. The military notified the family in June 2006. His big brother, George Bifolchi, a retired Air Force officer and Vietnam veteran, traveled to Hawaii to escort him home. On Oct. 27, 2006, Charles Bifolchi was interred at Arlington National Cemetery, with full military honors. It would have been his 63rd birthday. It was time for me to say goodbye.
Saying Goodbye to Capt. Bifolchi
It was a hot and humid day when I took a cab to Arlington. I walked along Eisenhower Boulevard looking for Section 66, Grave 6820-2. After a bit of searching, I found the white stone that bears his name. I introduced myself and apologized for taking so long to come. I told him about the bracelet and the promise I made to his mother. It didn’t seem odd to stand there talking to him — I’d been doing it most of my life. I knelt before his headstone, took the bracelet off my wrist, laid it to rest and said my final words to Charles Bifolchi. I know he heard me.
© Twin Cities Public Television – 2016. All rights reserved.
Christy Wylie says
Such a touching story. Thanks for sharing.