Kathy Strong laid the wooden rose next to the brick with James Moreland’s name. She touched two fingers to its surface, a permanent reminder that the Green Beret medic, who went missing during the Vietnam War, would never be forgotten.
On Friday, the California native installed a memorial brick inscribed with Moreland’s name and the date he went missing in action, Feb. 7, 1968, next to Elvis Presley’s brick on the south side of Monument Circle.
But the journey that brought Strong to Monument Circle really began in 1973.
That year, at age 12, Strong and her sister each received a POW/MIA bracelet from Santa Claus — two of the nearly 5 million bracelets distributed during the 1970s by Los Angeles-based student organization Voices in Vital America.
“Spec. 5 James Moreland 2-7-68” was inscribed on Strong’s bracelet.
The young girl, then teenager, then adult never took it off. She wore it every day without fail for 38 years.
“It just reminded me of every Thanksgiving he wasn’t with his family, every Christmas he wasn’t with his family, every birthday that went by,” Strong said. “All the special days that go by and where his family is like, ‘We still don’t have answers.’ And I didn’t want them to have to wait alone.”
So Strong scoured her local newspaper each day, looking for the name James Moreland. She watched as her peers took off their bracelets as soldier after soldier made it back. And long after most of the American public had moved on from the Vietnam War, Strong hadn’t.
She wanted to keep her promise.
It wasn’t until 2010 that Moreland’s remains were identified. It was only months later, at his funeral, that Strong took off the bracelet.
Still, she never forgot about Moreland. And she found a new way to ensure his memory. She’s on a mission to put a memorial brick with his name in all 50 states to make sure no one forgets his service. Indiana was stop 20.
A violent battle
Moreland was born in Alabama on Sept. 29, 1945, but his family moved to California where he was an all-star high school football player who loved to fish and hunt.
Linda Brown, now 71 and Moreland’s youngest sister, said she will never forget the day her big brother left home in 1967.
She remembers going to the airport with her mom to see him off in California.
Brown was 19. Her brother was 22. She never saw him again.
Moreland served as a medic in the U.S. Army Special Forces. His commanding officer, Paul Longgrear, shared his own recollections in a phone interview with IndyStar.
He said he and Moreland were almost exactly the same size and age, adding that Moreland was an all-around great kid who was “fearless in battle.” Moreland was “always where he needed to be when he needed to be.”
The most northern Special Forces camped in villages along the Ho Chi Minh trail. Longgrear said the team was there as a mobile strike force to monitor traffic on the trail and support the rebuilding of the campaign.
But then they were ambushed.
The assault was part of the Tet Offensive, a series of surprise attacks launched during the lunar new year holiday that pushed the U.S. and South Vietnamese forces back. It was also the first time enemy soldiers had used Russian tanks, Longgrear said, and it happened during a ceasefire.
Charlie Lindewald, of La Porte, Indiana, was the first soldier killed in the Battle of Lang Vei. He came home in 2005.
Longgrear was shot in the head, ankle and wrist. Moreland was critically wounded. He was left in a partially destroyed bunker while his fellow soldiers fought their way out.
Longgrear said 14 Green Berets escaped.
Moreland was not one of them.
When Strong slipped her bracelet onto her left wrist on Christmas five years after Moreland went missing, she promised to wear it until he came home.
“It was a pact between James, God and me,” Strong said.
The company that produced the bracelets sent her a short biography and photo of Moreland in the mail.
“I remember thinking that his eyes seemed to reach into the very depths of my soul, as if to say, ‘please don’t forget me,'” Strong said. “I never did.”
In 1985, Strong needed surgery on her left wrist, but when the surgeon told her she would have to remove the bracelet, she decided to skip the surgery. Later, she found another surgeon who served in the war and understood. Before surgery, Strong interlocked her hands together and the new surgeon slid the bracelet from her left wrist to her right. When her wrist returned to normal, the surgeon slid it back.
Still wanting to know what became of Moreland, Strong contacted her local newspaper, the Los Angeles Daily News, in 1988 to share her story, hoping that his family would see it.
In 2008 — the 40th anniversary of the year Moreland’s unit was ambushed — Strong shared her story with another California newspaper, the Contra Costa Times, again with the hope of discovering Moreland’s fate.
This time, with a little help from the internet, the story found its way to Brown, Moreland’s little sister, who called the Contra Costa Times to get in touch with Strong.
Shortly after an hour-long phone conversation between Strong and Brown, Strong flew to Washington state to meet Moreland’s sisters.
“I told my sister and my daughter a long time ago, ‘if it was just one piece of bone fragment,” Brown trailed off. “I get very emotional.”
In late 2010, Moreland’s remains — just two bone fragments — were identified.
“I was thrilled when my sister called and told me they identified his remains,” Brown told IndyStar in a phone interview. “I was finally able to … have closure.”
Then, Brown called Strong.
“She excitedly told me, ‘brother is coming home,'” Strong said.
In 2011 — 43 years after he went missing in action — they held a funeral in Alabama for Spec. 5 James Moreland. He was buried between his parents.
The family invited Strong.
She watched as his casket was placed on the hearse before the funeral. Then, the moment came. She placed the bracelet on the left sleeve of Moreland’s uniform.
She kissed the bracelet and whispered, “welcome home, James.”
Keeping his memory alive
After the funeral, Strong realized she needed to continue to honor his memory. That’s when she decided to place a memorial brick in all 50 states
Her first stop was Ocean Springs, Mississippi. She has also made stops in Wisconsin, Florida and Arkansas. She plans to place three bricks a year over the next 10 years — the 59-year-old plans to be done by the time she’s 70.
“She refuses to let the MIA POWs be forgotten,” Longgrear said. “I think it makes me confident that there are people who will never forget the sacrifice that was made.”
Longgrear was not able to attend Friday’s ceremony, but Steve “Headdog” Moore represented him. Moore, who was placed in the Indiana Military Veterans Hall of Fame in 2015, is president of the Wall Gang, a nonprofit that helps veterans with medicine, food, even building ramps for veterans who are disabled.
The organization also takes two Vietnam veterans each year to the Vietnam Wall Memorial in D.C.
Strong decided to have Moreland’s brick placed next to Elvis Presley’s brick, she said, because they are both from the South and both served in the Army.
“This is the perfect place for him,” Moore said as Strong showed him the memorial brick on National POW/MIA Recognition Day.
More than 1,500 Americans from the Vietnam War are still unaccounted for.
The Indiana War Memorials Foundation offers a brick program where for $150, anyone can order a brick to be placed on the circle and have a replica brick shipped to them. The bricks of 50 MIA Hoosiers rest on the north side of Monument Circle. Moreland’s brick is one of more than 3,000, representative of all conflicts the U.S. has been in, now installed in the circle in the center of downtown Indianapolis. There are 200,000 additional spots.
Retired Air Force Brig. Gen. J. Stewart Goodwin, executive director of the Indiana War Memorial, presented the memorial brick replica to Strong.
Her next stop: Lake Charles, Louisiana.