For a long time, Bob Evans tried but could not forget Christmas 1969, "the best day I spent in Vietnam." He and another platoon leader, Joe Rufty, shared Rufty's package from home -- chocolate chip cookies, a bottle of whiskey, a laugh box that cackled hysterically as the men played marathon card games.
A month later, Rufty was dead. Nine days after that, Evans was wounded. And although he tried to write a letter to Rufty's family, "I didn't know what to say that wouldn't cause them more pain." It was only years later, at a party, that Evans heard a laugh box, burst into tears and realized the time had come to try again.
Evans, who lives in the Washington area, eventually found his buddy's relatives through a new computerized program offered by the Friends of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. He plans to meet them here next month to place a wreath near Rufty's name. The program, called In Touch, seeks to connect strangers such as Evans and the Ruftys -- veterans who have been living with their memories, and relatives of the dead who have been hungry to know more.
"A lot of people needed some time and distance from the war before they could address their pain and grief," said John Holman, executive director of the volunteer group. "There are a lot of sons and daughters who never knew their fathers. Sometimes veterans want to deliver photographs or mementos to families. Sometimes parents want to talk to men who served with their sons."
The program grew out of the 1,000 requests the group receives each month from across the country for rubbings of names from the memorial.
Often a poignant letter accompanies such requests.
"It's 2:30 in the morning when I'm writing this to you," wrote a mother in the Midwest.
"And I'm hoping I can just find somebody who served with my Bill and then I can find peace."
On Memorial Day weekend, with thousands of veterans in town for service reunions and other events, the program received a major boost.
Operating under a tent near the memorial, volunteers took hundreds of applications for information -- about "persons who did not come back from Vietnam" and those who did -- from college students, elderly parents and veterans dressed in fatigues.
The organization estimates that 43 million Americans were directly touched by the Vietnam War.
One man wanted help in finding someone who knew his brother, William Arthur Sawyer, who died in 1968 and whose nickname was "Wild One."
Another was hoping to get information about Robert T. Murphy, a kind chaplain he remembered in the 1st Cavalry.
Bob Jones, of Rochester, Mich., a former Navy corpsman, said he wants to find the four children of his friend Auburn Dale McComb, whose helicopter was shot down in 1967.
What would he tell them if he found them? "How much he loved them," Jones said, wiping his eyes. "How he talked about them all the time."
The program operates on the policy that it is a family's decision whether to be contacted by someone who knew a loved one. The Friends serve as a go-between, Holman said.
For Danielle Sanville, a nursing student in Wisconsin, In Touch has already provided a few clues about her father, Corpsman Ernest E. Sanville, who left for Vietnam six weeks before she was born and never returned alive. She has talked to a man who credits her father, a medic, with saving his life. And she hopes to speak with others who knew him.
"I used to think maybe he was missing and maybe someday he would come back," said Sanville, 21. "Now I just want to find out about him -- there's so little I know. Sometimes, I'm embarrassed that I don't know more."
People interested in joining In Touch can write the Friends of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, 1350 Connecticut Ave. NW, Suite 300, Washington, D.C. 20036, or call 467-1100.