Editor's note: This version reflects a correction to the location of the ceremony and the name of the searchable database used.
She never knew the man whose name she wore. She just knew his name, and where he’d been, and about the war.
When Patty James was a teen, she wore a Vietnam POW bracelet she received as a Christmas gift. She’s kept it for more than 40 years, long after Col. Lawrence Guarino returned.
“I’ve never forgotten his name,” she said. “It’s always been etched in my mind.”
Today, on the 48th anniversary of his capture, that bracelet will go to the man whose name is engraved on the inside.
Colonel Guarino, 91, will receive the bracelet from University of Toledo military and media liaison Haraz Ghanbari in a ceremony at the independent living facility where he and his wife live in Melbourne, Fla.
The presentation wouldn’t have been possible if Mr. Ghanbari hadn’t shown Mrs. James a video message from Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel. The video was shown at the opening ceremonies of Toledo’s Vietnam Era Veterans Appreciation Event last week, but Mr. Ghanbari also showed the clip to Mrs. James, an administrative assistant to UT President Dr. Lloyd Jacobs.
“It was almost like it was meant to happen,” Mr. Ghanbari said. “I’m not even sure why I showed that video to Patty.”
Mrs. James told Mr. Ghanbari about her bracelet after watching the video and learning more than 1,600 POW or MIA Vietnam soldiers were still unaccounted for. She remembered her mother told her Colonel Guarino returned home safely when it was covered on television, but Mrs. James never tried to contact him and wasn’t sure of his present-day whereabouts.
Mr. Ghanbari suggested they search for him. He first looked at the Department of Veterans Affairs Nationwide Gravesite Locator Database. Mr. Ghanbari thought a colonel in Vietnam would likely have passed on, but to his surprise, Colonel Guarino’s name was not listed.
With the help of a friend, he discovered Colonel Guarino and his wife, Evelyn, were living in an assisted-living facility in Florida. Mrs. James told Mr. Ghanbari she would happily return the bracelet. He contacted the Guarinos, and they agreed to the ceremony.
Colonel Guarino was a POW for nearly eight years after his plane was shot down June 14, 1965. When he returned to the United States on Feb. 16, 1973, there was national coverage led by Walter Cronkite, Mrs. Guarino said.
“He came off the first airplane and he was the 10th man that came off, which would be their ranking of how long they were in captivity,” Mrs. Guarino said. “And he came off the airplane with a beautiful smile on his face.”
Bracelets with names of POW or MIA soldiers were popular among American youths as a show of support for soldiers, Mrs. James said, with children wearing a bracelet until the soldier on it returned.
Colonel Guarino, who also served in the Air Force in World War II and the Korean War, was immediately flooded with bracelets bearing his name after he came home, and still receives a bracelet every year or two.
“It was nice to know that there were so many loyal Americans while we were fighting in a war that wasn’t too damn popular,” he said.
Mrs. James wore her bracelet every day until Colonel Guarino returned, after it was placed in her Christmas stocking by her mother in 1972. She’s kept it in a jewelry box since.
Now, it will be delivered to the colonel. The Guarinos, who celebrated their 70th anniversary on Valentine’s Day, will be joined by their four sons for the presentation that will include an honor guard. The ceremony is important not only to honor Colonel Guarino, Mr. Ghanbari said, but to serve as a reminder of the POW and MIA who are still uncounted for.
Mrs. James is not able to travel to Florida for the ceremony because of work requirements, so she’s sending a letter to the Guarinos instead.
Colonel Guarino said he would like to see Mrs. James, but his age would probably prevent him from traveling. Mrs. James said she also wants to meet the man she never knew, but who’s been so close to her for 40 years.
“My father-in-law lives in Florida, so maybe we could stop and see them and say hello, and meet face to face,” she said.
Contact Sam Gans at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6516.