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2 N.C. women who wore POW-MIA bracelets share a homecoming

Barbara Fassig of Weddington, N.C., was 23 when she was given a bracelet bearing the name Dan Maslowski, a Vietnam War co-pilot who was a prisoner of war. She continued to pray daily for Maslowski that he have a "safe and blessed life” even after knowing he made it home. She has done this every day for 45 years.
Barbara Fassig of Weddington, N.C., was 23 when she was given a bracelet bearing the name Dan Maslowski, a Vietnam War co-pilot who was a prisoner of war. She continued to pray daily for Maslowski that he have a "safe and blessed life” even after knowing he made it home. She has done this every day for 45 years. jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

They are two women connected by cheap metal bracelets, each inscribed with different names – but the same date.

I heard from both after writing about the remarkable return of the remains of Bunyan Price Jr. after 45 years. On May 2, 1970, Price – raised in Monroe and Belmont and drafted into the Army during the Vietnam War in late 1969 – was on a helicopter with seven other Americans. Its tail had been hit by enemy ground fire just over the Cambodian border and it was burning.

The co-pilot, Dan Maslowski, freshly arrived in Vietnam, brought the UH-1H Huey down in a rice field – to a waiting assault of Viet Cong. He and three others were captured trying to flee. One escaped. And the remaining three, including Price, were likely killed that day. Last year, their remains were found in a single grave and a week ago, Price’s four siblings buried their brother next to his parents in Belmont.

On Wednesday, I got a voicemail from a woman in Hendersonville eager – out of breath, really – to speak with me.

Her name is Constance Barna-Voorhees, CeeCee to her grandchildren. She said her daughter, Kate Sentzlaff, had called late Tuesday afternoon from Pennsylvania. “Mom, this is important; you need to sit down,” Sentzlaff told her.

Barna-Voorhees naturally thought the worst.

But the daughter had read my story about Bunyan Price posted on Facebook and couldn’t wait to tell her mother.

For 45 years, Barna-Voorhees has worn a stainless steel POW-MIA bracelet – like the ones that millions of Americans wore during those troubled years – etched in black letters. It read: “Spec. 5 Bunyan Price Jr.” and the date he went missing: “5-2-70.”

Never has she taken it off, not for one second – even during three surgeries. She removed earrings, a necklace, her watch and wedding band, but told the doctors she would not go under the knife if they required her to remove her precious bracelet.

They covered it in gauze and tape.

“I nearly fainted,” Barna-Voorhees, now 80, said about her daughter’s news. “It was like winning a lottery present. I cried. I could never take off this bracelet because Bunyan Price never made it back.”

Then on Thursday, Barbara Fassig, 68 and retired in Weddington since 2003, emailed that she too had worn a copper-plated bracelet in the early 1970s, this one with Maslowski’s name. He had spent nearly three years as a POW in Cambodia and was released in February 1973 as part of Operation Homecoming – the highly publicized POW exchange that brought hundreds of Americans home.

When she saw Maslowski walk across her TV screen, she called her father, Andrew Klopchin, a former POW during World War II.

“Dad,” she said. “Dan’s home.”

The father, ever wise and devoutly patriotic, told her she could take off the bracelet, but urged her to say a prayer each day that Maslowski “live a safe and blessed life.”

That is what she has done – each day – since 1973.

‘A piece of my heart’

By 1970, many Americans were growing tired of the Vietnam War. College campuses seethed in protest, prodding for an end to the country’s involvement. Public support eroded as young troops came home in body bags.

Promises by leaders to end the war soon were repeatedly broken.

Yet away from the turmoil came these bracelets that transcended politics, with a simple but potent message to care for and remember a warrior in peril.

Barna-Voorhees was 35 and a mother of three when a letter arrived in late 1970 at her home in Port Murray, N.J. It asked for a small donation to a group raising awareness that Americans were missing or being held captive in Southeast Asia.

She sent in the $2.50 requested, and days later received the bracelet, which she promptly wrapped around her right wrist – where it has stayed, building a connection to Price that gratifies her to this day.

“I put it on my right wrist because each time I cover my heart with my right hand, I pay tribute to that kid,” she said.

About that time, Fassig, 23 and newly married in Nyack, N.Y., was given a similar bracelet, this one copper-plated, and began her daily prayer for Maslowski.

Attached to the name

Both women have a connection to the military. Barna-Voorhees’ first husband, the late Thomas Barna, was a Marine in Korea. She had uncles who fought in World War II and remembers how her aunts suffered waiting for their husbands to come home. Fassig had her former POW father – a ball turret gunner on a B-24 that was shot down over Bulgaria – who instilled in her and his grandchildren a respect for sacrifices that military families make.

Their bracelets were part of a movement started by Carol Bates and Kay Hunter, two “sorority-type” college students in Los Angeles. Both were members of VIVA (Voices in Vital America) and hit on the idea of issuing bracelets to support the missing.

“We were looking for ways that college students could become involved in positive programs to support U.S. soldiers without becoming embroiled in the controversy,” said Carol Bates Brown of McLean, Va., retired after a career of working on the MIA-POW issue. “Sitting around a kitchen table, we thought maybe we could hand out a few bracelets to college students to honor the missing.”

Then entertainers Sonny and Cher wore bracelets on their popular TV show. “They mentioned the bracelets and the whole world went nuts for them,” Brown said.

Through VIVA, they created the POW-MIA Bracelet Campaign. Entertainer Bob Hope and actress-singer Martha Raye served as honorary co-chairs.

They distributed about 5 million bracelets over three years with the names of about 1,450 men listed as POWs or MIAs. For each man, they sought permission from wives or families. With the proceeds, they produced “untold” millions of bumper stickers, buttons, brochures, matchbooks and newspaper ads to draw attention to the cause.

Those who wore them were asked to keep them on until the serviceman returned home or his remains were identified.

“People began to think of them as a real person – which they were – but someone who was a friend, or part of the family,” Brown said. “Sometimes they didn’t know anything about the guy. That didn’t matter.”

Over time, the bracelets went into boxes of memories, or broke and were pitched or lost.

But as the 50th anniversary of the fall of Saigon, South Vietnam – the official end to the war – approaches, Barna-Voorhees and Fassig continue to treasure their own.

They are among the few who have shown the devotion that the bracelets called for.

“It is a piece of me, a piece of my heart,” Fassig said. “It always will be.”

‘Connected by a simple bracelet’

All these years, Fassig has kept her bracelet in a small cardboard box of keepsakes that includes her parents’ wedding announcement, funeral programs, and the Western Union telegram delivered to her grandparents when her father turned up missing in Bulgaria.

Each time she moved, the box moved with her. When she said her daily prayer for Maslowski, she’d sit and reflect and wonder how he was doing.

Then Bunyan Price Jr.’s remains were returned, and Fassig read in my story Maslowski’s account of what happened that May 2 in 1970.

I put her in touch with Maslowski, who is retired in Charleston, and last Thursday they talked. The first time she heard his voice, she teared up, “but I didn’t cry.”

“It was such a heartwarming, emotional experience – joyous and inspiring,” she said. “I felt like I had known him all my life.”

Maslowski, too, was moved, though he said the bracelets often draw him back to the guilt he’s felt that he survived when so many didn’t.

“There are special people in this world – and she is one of them,” he said.

After they hung up, she called her daughter, Chele Fassig, in Charlotte, eager to hear about their call. All her life, Chele had heard her mother talk about Dan Maslowski.

“We agreed that we needed to go to Charleston and take Dan and his wife to dinner,” the mother said. “Isn’t it amazing how our lives were connected by a simple bracelet from 45 years ago – and the coming home of Bunyan Price.”

‘It belongs to them’

The standing joke among Barna-Voorhees’ children and grandchildren is what to buy Mom and CeeCee for Christmas or her birthday.

“Not a bracelet – she’s got one already” is the punchline, her son Chris wrote in an email Saturday.

Now, they may have to get her a replacement.

I put Barna-Voorhees in touch with Bunyan Price’s sister, Wanda Hanley, who had called me months ago to say her brother’s remains had been found and were being sent home.

The two talked Thursday and another connection was made.

“It was like a dream, even spiritual,” Barna-Voorhees said. “Here is a kid I have thought about every day for 45 years and to talk to his sister was overwhelmingly emotional.”

Hanley said others have called her and her three siblings with stories about wearing Bunyan’s bracelet – but none more devoted than Barna-Voorhees.

She told Hanley she wants her family to have the bracelet and plans to drive to Charlotte soon to hand it over after 45 years.

“I want a member of Bunyan’s family to remove the bracelet from my arm,” Barna-Voorhees said. “It belongs to them.”

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