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As the Air Force F-4 burned through the sky just north of the DMZ, a North Vietnamese surface-to-air missile streaked up to meet it. The SAM exploded a hundred feet away, strafing the American jet with metal shards and setting both engines on fire.
Capt. Bill Schwertfeger, the pilot, and his weapons officer, Lt. Ralph Galati, rode the flaming jet down to 2,500 feet then ejected, their parachutes blooming into perfect targets for villagers on the ground, who began shooting at them. The F-4 crash-landed, plowing up a row of huts. Schwertfeger and Galati floated down afterwards into a throng of 200 angry villagers who might have finished off the Americans had not local militia soldiers wanted to turn them over to Communist forces and collect a bounty.
That was Feb. 16, 1972. A few months later and half a world away, 12-year-old Sharon Denney bought a bracelet. Growing up in middle-class Morrow, Ga., the sixth-grader had only a vague understanding of the conflict raging in Southeast Asia, picked up from gruesome black-and-white newscasts beamed into the family living room.
But she had heard she could do some good, and remember an American prisoner by wearing his name on her arm. So she spent $2.50 of her own money and ordered a simple metal band from the POW/MIA Bracelet Campaign. When it came in the mail, the bracelet bore the name "1 Lt. Ralph Galati" and the date of his capture, creating for the young girl a personal connection with a soldier.
Now, more than three decades later, Galati and Denney are set to connect in person for the first time. Denney, now 46, is an admissions counselor at The King's College, a Christian liberal arts school in New York City. In 2002, she began to wonder whether she still had her POW bracelet. During a visit to her parents' home, she found the bracelet in a basement box, hidden under her Girl Scout beret.
Growing up in a Christian home, she had prayed for Galati when she wore the bracelet so many years ago. So she was overjoyed when a Google search revealed that the North Vietnamese had freed him in March 1973 and that he was now an IBM executive living in Philadelphia, married with grown children. With not much else to go on, she contacted a friend, retired Air Force General Dick Abel, who worked with a ministry serving military families. Within two hours, she had Galati's home phone number.
"I had tears in my eyes and my hand was shaking as I dialed," she said, adding that she cried openly when she finally heard Galati's voice. "It was one of those surreal connections. . . . I thought, 'Look what happened and I was a part of that. Somehow in the grand scheme of the universe, maybe my prayers made a difference.'"
Galati, now 58, credits prayer for his survival. "I prayed a lot. Your faith in God and in your country was about all you had to keep you strong." He and fellow POWs, including Arizona Sen. John McCain, his Hanoi Hilton neighbor, survived hunger, brutal interrogations, and constant movement from prison to prison. Galati's most difficult experience was 75 days of solitary confinement at a camp called the Zoo where he hunkered in a cell "no bigger than a couple of telephone booths."
News of the bracelet campaign filtered into the prison camps via new captures, said Galati, encouraging POWs with the knowledge that they weren't forgotten. Two college students, Carole Bates and Kay Hunter, launched the POW/MIA Bracelet Campaign in November 1970 as a way to draw public attention to the suffering of American POWs. In all, the group distributed nearly 5 million bracelets.
Since his own release, Galati estimates that about a hundred people who wore his bracelet have contacted him. Most mail the bracelet back to him as a symbol of closure. With Denney, though, he is honored to complete the circle in person. On Nov. 9, just before Veteran's Day, Galati will speak to the King's College student body on the issues of faith and leadership, and how his experience as a prisoner of war shaped who he is today.
Sharon Denney is looking forward to meeting the man she prayed for so long ago. "I'll be sitting proudly in the first row, wearing my bracelet."