Vietnam vets connect through POW bracelet (Luis Chirichigno, Ed Leonard)

When his country called, John Blanks answered. He served two tours of duty in Vietnam, one of the most unpopular wars in U.S. history and the subject of a 10-episode series on PBS by filmmakers Ken Burns and Lynn Novick. A lot of his buddies went, too. Some came back with broken bodies and broken spirits. Others never came back. In 1960, John graduated from Macon’s Lanier High School, which had one of the largest Junior ROTC programs in the country. Two years later, he married Kathryn, his high school sweetheart. His first tour was as an Army infantry platoon leader with the 101st Airborne in 1966-67. Sixteen months later, he returned as a captain and infantry company commander as part of the 82nd Airborne Division. He was in the thick of the fighting in Southeast Asia. Men around him, even standing beside him, were killed in a war that claimed more than 58,000 American lives. Back home, Kathryn watched the evening news, hoping to catch a glimpse of her husband, an assurance he was OK. He wrote her every day. Her “Dear John” letters were not the traditional “Dear John” letters. He was not there for his daughter Ashlyn’s first birthday. He left for Vietnam when she was 6 weeks old and didn’t see her again until she was 13 months old. “She would call anything in a picture frame her daddy,” Kathryn said. John returned home in 1969 with a Purple Heart and a fistful of bronze medals. A year later, he was assigned to Infantry Advance School at Fort Benning. He and Kathryn were at a shopping mall in Columbus when they met Anne Purcell. She was the wife of Col. Ben Purcell, the Army’s highest-ranking prisoner of war in Vietnam. They later wrote a book together called “Love and Duty.” John and Kathryn purchased two of the nickel-plated POW/MIA bracelets that became popular during the latter years of the war. They both chose the names of captains, since that was John’s rank. Kathryn began wearing a bracelet engraved with the name of Capt. Edward Leonard, who had been captured on May 31, 1968. John selected one with the name of Capt. Louis Genardo “Jerry” Chirichigno, who had been listed as missing in action on Nov. 2, 1969. Like millions of others, they made a vow to keep them on their wrists until their soldiers returned home, even if it was in a pine box.

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