They were common once, the simple metal bracelets engraved with the names of U.S. soldiers missing in Vietnam or held captive there. These soldiers would not be forgotten, the bracelets proclaimed. They were to be worn till the man behind every engraved name returned, however he returned.
Alexandria’s Pat Garvey has one still. He got it around 1988 when he and a friend visited the Airborne and Special Operations Museum in Fort Bragg, N.C.
“John A. Boronski,” the bracelet reads.
“He was from Ware, Mass.,” Pat said. “Ironically, that’s the same county I’m from.”
This is a story of coincidences. It’s a story of sacrifice. It’s a story of a song.
Pat is a folk singer, well known in Washington’s Irish music scene. The 59-year-old didn’t serve in Vietnam.
“The graduating class of 1972 was the first not drafted,” Pat said. “I was Class of ’73. The only time my mother said anything nice about Richard Nixon was when he stopped the draft.”
A folk singer is only as good as his songs, and Pat has always had a voracious appetite for them. A friend of his, Pat Murphy, knew where he could get one. Pat was an Army vet who had served two tours in Vietnam. So had his brother, Tim. One night about 30 years ago, Pat Murphy handed him a cassette tape.
“My brother wrote these,” Pat said. “Tell me what you think.”
Pat’s brother, Tim Murphy, served in Vietnam in 1968 and 1969 with the 4th Infantry Division. When the Vietnam Veterans Memorial was dedicated in Washington in 1982, he wasn’t able to come from his home in Peekskill, N.Y.
“I was a little reticent to go down,” Tim said. “I had a lot of my friends who are remembered there on the Wall.”
But a year later, Tim visited the memorial and was inspired to write a song about the experience. “(Still Waiting at) the Wall” begins:
On a drizzly D.C. morning in the middle of July
My brother brought me downtown to the Wall.
“It had touched me,” Tim said. “It was a positive catharsis. I didn’t come away morose. It was uplifting for me.”
After hearing Tim’s song, Pat Garvey got in touch to get permission to perform it. It’s been a part of his repertoire ever since. He said he’s seen the most macho Vietnam veterans wipe tears from their eyes when they hear it.
But the performance that looms largest in Pat’s life wasn’t in a bar or a club, but in a suite at the Omni Shoreham a few years after he learned the song. Pat had played a set at an Irish bar in Woodley Park when he was approached by two men in Navy uniforms. They’d heard “The Wall” and asked whether Pat could come back to their hotel and play it for some of the attendees at a convention of physician assistants, many of whom had been medics in the military.
It was the last thing Pat wanted to do. It was 1 a.m., he was done for the night, but he went and he sang:
And every name’s a father or a husband or a son
Or a daughter or a brother or a cousin to someone;
Or a name might be a classmate or a friend you may recall:
There’s nearly 60,000 fallen names still waiting at the Wall.
Afterward, someone noticed the bracelet on Pat’s wrist and the name upon it: John A. Boronski.
“Wait here a second,” the man said, startled. He came back with a Vietnam veteran who said: “That man was my best friend.” The two had served together during the war.
Said Pat: “The hair on the back of my neck started going up.”
That’s when Pat learned the story of Sgt. Boronski’s disappearance. On March 24, 1970, Boronski’s squad came under heavy enemy fire while operating in Cambodia. An Army helicopter landed to evacuate the troops. As it took off, it was hit by a rocket. It crashed into the jungle and exploded. Seven men were declared missing, Boronski among them. He was 25.
In 1978, their status was changed to died while missing. In 1998, after a local man had stumbled across the crash site while searching for aluminum, a U.S. search team visited and found human remains. They were laid to rest at Arlington.
There were tourists, and the curious, and some veterans who came,
Still others who sought an answer to it all;
But the only thing I’m sure of is: We left not quite the same,
With our memories alive and well, and waiting at the Wall.
John Boronski’s name is on Panel 12W, Line 37.
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.