POW bracelet holds cherished memories for Verstegen

Spring cleaning turns up bracelet, leads to successful search for Vietnam vet

KIMBERLY — A little bit of spring cleaning brought back some memories and a reminder of what military veterans have done for us.

Kathy Verstegen, a member of Holy Spirit Parish in Kimberly/Darboy, holds the POW/MIA bracelet her father purchased for her when she was about 10. (Kathy Weigman | For The Compass)

Kathy Verstegen was 10 or 12 years old when her dad took her to a military recruiter’s office where they were selling POW bracelets for $2 apiece. She recently found her bracelet while cleaning and wondered what had happened to the person whose name was stamped on it. She tracked him down and now shares her story so others can remember those tension-filled days around the Vietnam War and the service of veterans.

Her father, John Meyer, was a Marine veteran. “I think that was why it was so important to him that we understand about the people who were missing,” she said. She and other family members got bracelets bearing the name, rank and date of capture of a prisoner of war. The Vietnam War lasted from 1954 to 1975.

“I wore my bracelet every day when I was young,” Verstegen said. “Then, as time goes on and these things happen, I put it in a box and life went on.” Her mother gave her the box at some point. She took it home and put it in her closet. “It was one of those boxes filled with all the important things in a teen’s life.”

Verstegen, who is a nurse with the Kimberly Area School District, found the box shortly after area veterans set up a display at the school with items from their time of service. “I chatted with the veterans just a week before I found the bracelet, so when I found it, I was motivated to find the man whose name was on it to see if he was still living.”

The name on the bracelet was Maj. Richard Vogel, captured on May 22, 1967. Verstegen and her husband, Roy, an IT specialist for the Diocese of Green Bay, searched the internet for anything on Vogel. She found that he is still living and has a family. “It was pretty neat,” she said. Her husband found an address for Vogel in Florida, and Verstegen contacted him.

Kathy Verstegen’s bracelet is inscribed with the name of Maj. RIchard Vogel, who was a prisoner of war during the Vietnam War. (Kathy Weigman | For The Compass)

She learned that Vogel was from Ohio, now retired in Florida. “I sent him a letter asking if he was the person on my bracelet. I said I’ll send you the bracelet.”

Three weeks later, she received an email from Vogel. “He was thankful that I had thought about him over the years,” she said.

He wrote: “Thank you for asking about the bracelet. I’ve had a lot of people ask about them over the years. It has been 50 years this month when I was shot down and captured. Lots of memories are still pretty clear, but life has been good to me since I was released in March 1973. My wife and I have been married 62 years. Four children have families of their own and we have three great-grandchildren. Don’t send the bracelet back. The important thing is you wore it for us. Thanks again for your interest. Dick Vogel.”

Verstegen, who herself is married with three children and five grandchildren, recalled those days in the mid-1970s when people were watching daily TV news programs showing the war and the veterans returning home, as well as the massive anti-war protests going on all over the country. When the war ended, “I watched and thought it would be a celebration as the men were coming home. But there weren’t celebrations. I think it is important to think about this. When our soldiers came back (from Vietnam), they were not revered; there was no love, support or outreach for them. Maybe that’s why they don’t want to talk about their experiences. No one gave them the ‘We appreciate you, thank you’ speech.

“I’m glad I had the opportunity to reach out to this person and to tell others about it. I’m hearing that others remember the bracelets they had.”

Verstegen said she’s honored that Vogel responded to her letter, and 50 years after his capture, he is still in her prayers.

POW bracelets: A history

Bracelets honoring prisoners of war/those missing in action (POW/MIA) were sold between 1970 and 1976.

Other facts include:

  • About 5 million bracelets were distributed during those six years and sold for $2 to $3.
  • The idea for the bracelets was started by two California college students: Carol Bates Brown and Kay Hunter as a way to remember American prisoners of war suffering in captivity in Southeast Asia.
  • The women were part of the Los Angeles-based student organization POW/MIA Bracelet Campaign for VIVA (Voices In Vital America). Entertainers Bob Hope and Martha Raye served as honorary co-chairmen.
  • The bracelets were made to resemble one worn by Bob Dornan, who in 1969 was a television personality and several years later was elected to the U.S. Congress. Dornan wore a bracelet he had obtained in Vietnam from hill tribesmen, which he said always reminded him of the suffering the war had brought to so many.
  • Those who wore the bracelets vowed to leave them on until the soldier named on the bracelet, or their remains, were returned to America.
  • VIVA raised enough money to produce millions of bumper stickers, buttons, brochures, matchbooks and newspaper ads to draw attention to the missing men.
  • VIVA closed its doors in 1976, as interest in the POW/MIA issue waned.
  • The Vietnam War ended in 1975 with the fall of Saigon. U.S. troops were withdrawn in 1973. The war had spanned three U.S. presidential administrations and spurred violent anti-war protests across the country.
  • More than 3 million people, including 58,000 Americans, were killed in the conflict that pitted South Vietnam against Communist North Vietnam.