After 43 years, MIA hero is 'coming home'

Vietnam: Family and a woman who wore his bracelet for years finally get closure

February 22, 2011 

Forty-three years ago this month, U.S. Army Spc. 4 James Leslie Moreland vanished during a fierce battle at Lang Vei, South Vietnam.

He would later be awarded a Silver Star for heroism he showed that night and be promoted to sergeant first class while listed as MIA – missing in action.

Now, his remains positively identified using DNA from five family members, the Green Beret medic is coming home.

Sisters Linda Brown of Puyallup and Edna Anita LeMoine of Olympia and brother Donald Moreland of Lakeside, Calif., are relieved, grateful, tearful.

“I’ve never given up, and I’m so thankful that after all these years we can have the closure that we’ve waited for,” Brown said in an interview Sunday. “He’s coming home, and he’s going to be laid to rest after all these many, many years.”

Retired Army Col. Paul Longgrear of Pine Mountain, Ga., shares those sentiments. Longgrear, then a first lieutenant, was Moreland’s commanding officer. His medic, he said Monday, “is the last of my men to come home.”

And in Walnut Creek, Calif., a 50-year-old woman who never knew Moreland will finally remove the nickel-plated bracelet she’s worn as a symbol of hope for his return since she was 12.

“I guess it’s an understatement to say I took it more seriously than most,” said Kathy Strong of the POW-MIA bracelets that were faddish in the early ’70s. “I truly believed that if I continued to wear the bracelet, somehow I would help bring him home.”

All credit the perseverance and dedication of the Department of Defense Prisoner of War/Missing Personnel Office for its continuing quest to find and identify America’s lost GIs.

Though the family knew in recent months that a definitive identification was likely, the news still was in equal measure jarring and dreamlike after decades of fret and hope.

It was official earlier this month. An Army casualty officer, accompanied by a representative of the Missing Personnel Office, made an in-person notification to Donald Moreland, the designated next of kin, on Feb. 8. LeMoine flew to California for the occasion.

“The night my sister called (with the details), all I could say was, ‘Oh, my God! Oh, my God! Oh, my God!’” Brown said.

The remains of Special Forces soldier James Leslie Moreland, known as Les to his stateside friends and as Jim to his comrades in arms, will be buried May 14 alongside his parents, Fred and Gladys, in a small country cemetery at Ashby, Ala.

A FAMILY WAITS

Linda Brown was 19 the day her brother, smiling and confident, climbed aboard a jetliner at Los Angeles International Airport en route to Vietnam.

Moreland, a high school football star who enlisted in the Army and trained for its rigorous Special Forces in a time of great danger for U.S. troops, was 21.

It was June 1967.

Eight months later, Moreland disappeared.

Brown was pregnant with the daughter with whom she now lives, Lisa Newlander of Puyallup, when the unwelcome news came to her parents’ house.

At the time, the family lived in Anaheim, Calif.

“I won’t ever, ever forget the night that they came out, that the knock came on the door,” she said.

A uniformed casualty officer stood at the threshold.

“I was just speechless,” Brown said. “The first thing that was in my mind was that they had come to tell us he was dead.”

But that wasn’t the message.

The brother with whom she’d played cowboys and Indians as they grew up in Alabama, the sibling who took her kite flying on the spur of the moment, the young man she revered and called a hero, was missing.

There was uncertainty and hope at first. As the years ticked by, changes in Moreland’s status came. There was a “presumptive finding of death” in 1978, according to published accounts.

“We had a memorial service for him,” Brown said.

DNA TESTING AT WORK

In 1995, remains believed to be Moreland’s were excavated and sent to a military forensic laboratory in Hawaii. A terse Department of Defense report on his status lists “Date returned: 1995/04/12.”

But it would take 16 years and DNA samples from Moreland’s mother, Gladys Parks; from sisters Brown and LeMoine; from Newlander and Newlander’s son, Clinton Casity, before the military was certain.

KEEPING A PROMISE

Kathy Strong asked for a POW/MIA bracelet for Christmas 1972. She was in seventh grade, and everyone in her English class had one.

The bracelets, distributed by the nonprofit group VIVA (Voices in Vital America) came engraved with the service member’s rank and name, branch of service, date and place he or she went missing. They cost $2.50.

You could get one with the name of a family member, loved one or someone you knew, or you could simply request one for a stranger. The idea was you would wear it until your soldier came home.

Strong’s came in her Christmas stocking. She knew nothing about Moreland. After about a year, she wrote to VIVA and asked for information. She received small photograph and basic bio material

“That’s all I knew for the next 34 years,” she said. But she wore the bracelet religiously.

Three years ago, on the 40th anniversary of Moreland’s disappearance, the Contra Costa Times of California published a story about Strong and her dedication to the man she never met, the combat medic who disappeared four years before she put on his bracelet.

Brown discovered the story. The family contacted Strong, and she flew to Seattle. She attended the 2009 Auburn Veterans Day Parade with Brown, Newlander and Newlander’s son, Clinton, who was then in the National Guard.

Strong wanted never to forget.

She asked the family if she could have the bracelet buried with Moreland’s remains. They agreed.

“She’s like a guardian angel to him,” Newlander said. “She’s become part of our family.”

Brown agreed. “It means a lot to me that she’s worn the bracelet all these years.”

Strong’s company is giving her bereavement leave to attend the funeral.

“You were supposed to return it to the soldier when they came home,” she said, “and I just wanted to keep that promise.”

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