Mother's 32-Year Vigil Ends With Vets' Web Search
By Linda D. Kozaryn
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Feb. 14, 2001 "I often wonder what my son would look like now," the platinum-haired woman said, glancing at the other combat veterans in the room.
Marine Pfc. Bruce W. Carter died in Vietnam Aug. 7, 1969. Former Vice President Spiro Agnew awarded Carter the Medal of Honor posthumously for his actions that day.
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
"He'd be in his 50s," Georgie Carter Krell said with a wistful sigh.
Krell lost her son to Vietnam. At 17, shortly after graduating from high school, he joined the Marines and went off to war. His body came home two years later in a sealed coffin.
Pfc. Bruce W. Carter died Aug. 7, 1969. Vice President Spiro Agnew posthumously awarded the 19-year-old Marine the Medal of Honor for his final heroic act. Under heavy attack, Carter threw himself on a live grenade to protect his brother Marines.
Carter died as he had lived, according to Krell, first vice president of the American Gold Star Mothers, an organization that works to keep their offsprings' memories alive.
"As a kid, Bruce always had to be first in line, first to be the best at everything," Krell recalled with a smile. "When the kids signed up for band, he was the only kid to get off the bus with a tuba. I took one look at him and said, 'Bruce, that tuba's bigger than you are.' He said, 'Yeah, but nobody can carry it but me.'"
Bruce had always wanted to be a Marine, she noted. "I've no idea why. There were no Marines in our family. Bruce was going to be a Marine and that was that. He was 'oorah' all the way through."
All in all, not many people knew Carter -- only his family, people he grew up with and the Marines he served. Krell recently talked with a man who was with her son the day he died. Thanks to coincidence and perhaps divine intervention, the contact meant the end of a 32-year vigil.
Krell had never truly believed her son was dead. Yes, she'd seen the coffin. Yes, there'd been a funeral in his hometown of Miami Springs, Fla. Yes, there was a grave, but she rarely went there.
"I never believed he was in the coffin -- ever," she told the American Forces Press Service. "I begged to please let us look, but they wouldn't let us."
The Medal of Honor Citation of Marine Corps Pfc. Bruce W. Carter
Rank: Private First Class
Organization: Company H, 2nd Battalion, 3rd Marines, 3rd Marine Division (Rein), FMF.
Place: Quang Tri Province, Republic of Vietnam
Date: Aug. 7, 1969.
Entered service at Jacksonville, Fla.
Born: May 7, 1950, Schenectady, N.Y.
For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty while serving as grenadier with Company H in connection with combat operations against the enemy.
Pfc. Carter's unit was maneuvering against the enemy during Operation Idaho Canyon and came under a heavy volume of fire from a numerically superior hostile force. The lead element soon became separated from the main body of the squad by a brush fire.
Pfc. Carter and his fellow Marines were pinned down by vicious crossfire when, with complete disregard for his safety, he stood in full view of the North Vietnamese army soldiers to deliver a devastating volume of fire at their positions. The accuracy and aggressiveness of his attack caused several enemy casualties and forced the remainder of the soldiers to retreat from the immediate area.
Shouting directions to the Marines around him, Pfc. Carter then commenced leading them from the path of the rapidly approaching brush fire when he observed a hostile grenade land between him and his companions. Fully aware of the probable consequences of his action but determined to protect the men following him, he unhesitatingly threw himself over the grenade, absorbing the full effects of its detonation with his body.
Pfc. Carter's indomitable courage, inspiring initiative and selfless devotion to duty upheld the highest traditions of the Marine Corps and the U.S. Naval Service. He gallantly gave his life in the service of his country.
In her mind, Bruce was still somewhere in Vietnam. Someday, she thought, he might come home. Just walk through the door and everything would be fine. So, she never moved from the house Bruce knew.
"When he went in the service he gave all his toys and his trains and everything to the neighborhood kids," Krell said. "He said, 'Come on in, come help yourself, I'm all grown up. I don't need these.' His room is still there."
After boot camp and language school, Carter came home one last time at Christmas before shipping out to Vietnam. "That was the last we saw him," Krell said.
Six days before her scheduled wedding to second husband Frank Krell, Marines arrived at her door with news of her son's death. "He was buried on my birthday, Aug. 25, 1969," she recalled.
Eventually, Krell said, grief gave way, as it must, to acceptance. "I had to accept that Bruce went off by choice. I had to learn not to be bitter about the loss. I had two daughters. I had to live for them, too."
Still, she longed for her son's return: "Frank kept telling me, 'He's not coming home, Georgie,' and I kept saying, 'but I'm waiting.'"
Krell avoided joining the Gold Star Mothers, a group she dubbed "those weepy ladies." She had a job and was too busy. Later, however, she was drawn to those who work to preserve their children's memories.
"They're not just dead and gone," she said of the nation's fallen. "They are our sons. We'll never forget them, so we don't want you to forget them."
Over the years, she worked her way up the organization's ladder, doing volunteer work and speaking engagements. Throughout, she hoped she'd come into contact with someone who had known her son in Vietnam. Last fall, more than 31 years after her son died, it finally happened.
At a Gold Star Mothers banquet in Washington, D.C., Krell met Rob Coughlin, a member of Vietnam Veterans of America Chapter 451.
"He was alone in the crowd and he had a Marine Corps pin on his tie," Krell recalled. "I said, 'Hi Jarhead, how ya doing?' We got to talking and I said, 'You'd have thought that since my son received the Medal of Honor, I would have met somebody that was with him.'
"He looked at me and said, 'Would you like to?' I said, 'Absolutely, I've waited all these years for somebody to find me.'"
Coughlin recalled the meeting during a phone interview from his home in Baltimore. "'Maybe we can make that possible,'" he recalled saying.
Vets and family members often have a hard time tracing people, Coughlin noted, because troops in 'Nam used nicknames and their cohorts rarely knew their real names. Many vets locked away memories of 'Nam, refusing to talk about the war for decades.
"When everybody came back, they handled the pain in a different way," he said. "For instance, my wife and I had been married for seven years before she even knew I'd been in the service and some time after that before she realized I was in Vietnam.
"I didn't talk about Vietnam for 25 years until my sons began asking me questions about it," he said. "I finally decided that the good Lord above brought me back here for a reason, and I figured out that it was not to let those who died be forgotten.
Understanding the complexities involved in tracking down vets and family members, Coughlin began his search on the Internet. Finding a veterans association Web site for Carter's unit, the 2nd Battalion, 3rd Marines, he posted a note asking anyone who knew Carter to contact him. About two days later, he got an e-mail telling him to check out the group's message board.
"I don't know if you believe in divine intervention, but I've had too many things happen to me in my lifetime not to believe it," Coughlin said. "I went to the message board, and it said, 'Re: Bruce Carter. Anybody know him? Please contact.'"
About two weeks after he responded to that ad, Coughlin got an e-mail from Louis Salamon Jr. of Trenton, N.J.
"I'd been on the patrol with Bruce when he had gotten killed in 1969," Salamon told American Forces Press Service. "I was the corpsman with our unit and that day we got separated by fire and I couldn't get to him. I wish I could have, I wanted to, but there was nothing we could do.
"I guess it touched me back then and I've carried it with me," he added. "Over the years I've told my wife sometime I ought to look up his mother."
The only thing he had to go on, however, was a news clip about Carter receiving the Medal of Honor. It noted that his family lived in Florida. In the mid-1980s, Salamon said, a co-worker brought him a rubbing of Carter's name from the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington. A year or so later, he visited "The Wall" himself.
"Each year, Aug. 7, the day he died, was always a tough day for me," Salamon said.
Salamon's message had been on the Web for six months before Coughlin responded to it. "I got chills," Salamon said.
Coughlin asked Salamon if he was up to talking to Krell. "'It's going to mean an awful lot to her, but I'm concerned about how well you're going to deal with it,'" he said. Salamon replied he was willing to give it a go.
"That was scary," Salamon recalled, "but I did it in October. Within a few days of our first call, I got a card from her and then we traded a couple of letters."
In his letters, Salamon talked about Carter's last day. "I remember distinctly many of the events that day," he wrote, "but what I remember most was how upset we all were that we'd lost Bruce -- not that losing another guy would have been easier, but it was Bruce.
"Bruce always wanted to take the point on the patrols that he was assigned to, and I do recall everyone being a little more confident if he was with your patrol. I guess we all felt a little safer. … He was respected as a Marine by everyone. We knew he was hard-core dedicated to what he was doing.
"You mentioned that at home he had to do everything well, had to try to be first -- I guess that's what he took with him overseas," Salamon told Krell.
The day Carter died, Salamon said, the patrol barely escaped a fire that had started during the firefight. Neither the corpsman nor the other Marines could reach Carter. The patrol made it back to base camp and formed a larger group to go back for his body.
"I went, and along with a couple of Marines, carried Bruce back to camp. It was raining. It was wet, cold and cloudy, foggy and miserable. We just couldn't get him out. The monsoons were starting and it was a couple days before the weather cleared enough to get a chopper in.
"Bruce was kept dry…. I know this; I made certain of it. We made sure he was covered up and I went up to the spot where he was several times while we waited. Eventually we got a bird in and got him out."
"So, Georgie," Salamon wrote, "please know that Bruce did come home to you."
Krell said her initial reaction was dismay. "I didn't even go to the graveyard. I said, 'He's not there.' That's how I felt. From Lou's letter, I was just crushed. I thought 'Oh my God, he's been alone out there and I haven't been out there.'"
She then came to cherish the final chapter Salamon had provided. She said the contact had released years of anguish and worry.
Salamon reacted much the same way. He'd thought about contacting Carter's family for years, but couldn't bring himself to do it. Now that he had, he advises other veterans to do the same.
"Please ask those veterans who've thought of contacting buddies, or families of pals, but who haven't done so yet, to please gather themselves as best they can and make the attempt," Salamon said.
"Maybe you can lessen someone else's hurt, and your own," he concluded.
Krell wholeheartedly agreed.
"This has been the best thing that happened to me in years," she said. "I've been telling the whole world that I'd found Lou. I am delighted to know someone was with Bruce and has cared about him all this time.
"Bruce gave his life. He knew what he was doing," Krell said. "Lou made it come back to me.
"I feel proud to be Bruce's mother and I'm so proud to be able to stand up with the Medal of Honor recipients. I may be small, but I carry the torch high for my son."