Crestview woman to be reunited with dog tags belonging to husband killed in action in 1970 during the Vietnam War.
CRESTVIEW — Earlier this week, Darrell James had some news for his wife, Karen.
He just wasn’t sure how she was going to take it.
For the past several years the retired Air Force colonel had been trying to track down a man who had discovered a set of dog tags near the border of Vietnam and Cambodia. The dog tags belonged to Karen’s first husband, Army Capt. Gordon T. Kimbrell Jr.
“I had been searching on the Vietnam War Memorial’s ‘virtual wall’ website, and I found this message from this man who said he had found Gordon’s dog tags,” Darrell said. “I didn’t want to say anything to Karen about it until I knew for sure if it was real, because I didn’t want to get her hopes up. When I was finally able to make contact with him, I wasn’t sure how Karen was going to feel about it. I wasn’t sure if it was going to make her happy, or just bring back unhappy memories.”
He got his answer Monday when he broke the news to Karen.
“All I could think of was how quickly I could get them,” Karen said with a smile. “I couldn’t believe it.”
A lifetime ago
The photo albums on the Jameses’ kitchen table are packed with happy pictures from a lifetime ago.
One book contains photos from Karen’s and Gordon’s wedding at the West Point Chapel in 1966, a week after he graduated from the U.S. Military Academy. In one photo they are surrounded by their parents, including Gordon’s father, a brigadier general and himself a West Point grad.
Another album is filled with snapshots from their four years of married life. In one picture, Gordon, whom Karen called Kim, is holding their firstborn son. In another, Karen and Gordon are smiling on a Hawaiian beach during one of his R&R (rest and relaxation) breaks during his first tour of duty in Vietnam.
The third holds photos from Gordon’s military career: shots he took of water buffalo in Vietnam and a portrait of the moment when Gen. William Westmoreland, the commander of U.S. forces in Vietnam, awarded Gordon the Silver Star.
Karen smiled Friday as she turned the albums’ pages, sharing memories of how she and Gordon met while he was a cadet at West Point and she worked at the Empire State Building in New York City.
“He was very gentlemanly, very gracious,” she recalled. “When we first met, he asked me for directions to Greenwich Village. He had a friend with him and so did I. Before I knew it, we were on a date.”
Tall and athletic with movie star good looks, Gordon enjoyed the outdoors, Karen said.
“I remember we went mountain climbing at West Point one time,” she said. “The next day at work, I was so sore I could barely get up from my desk.”
One memory, however, was too painful to share.
Days before Gordon was due to come home from his second tour in Vietnam, a car drove up to the house in Hawaii where Karen was staying with their two sons: Gordon, who was about 2 and a half, and Robert, who was just a year old. It was June, 1970.
“I’ll never forget it,” Karen said, her eyes flooding with tears. “It was late at night.”
She reached for a tissue and paused for a moment to catch her breath. She opened her mouth to speak but then stopped again, shaking her head.
“I can’t,” she said softly. “I can’t.”
The men in the car had come to inform her that Gordon had been killed in action. He is buried at his beloved West Point.
A priceless discovery
After Gordon’s death, Karen moved with her sons to San Antonio, Texas. In 1983, she and Darrell married, blending their two families.
These days, the couple lives happily in Crestview, where they raise Pembrooke Welsh Corgis. They are looking forward to receiving Gordon’s dog tags during an upcoming ceremony at the AMVETS Post 35.
“Andrew Gonci, the man who found the dog tags, is himself a Vietnam vet,” Darrell said. “He married a Vietnamese woman, and over the years they’ve gone back there several times.”
During one of their trips, someone offered to sell Gonci a set of dog tags that had been found near the Cambodia-Vietnam border. He decided to buy a metal detector and begin searching the area himself.
“He’s found about 50 sets of tags,” Darrell said. “He’s been able to return all but four of them to their family members.”
Because he’s had a bad experience with people attempting to sell the dog tags he has returned, Gonci wanted to go through a veteran’s organization to return Gordon’s dog tags to Karen. The folks at the AMVETS agreed to make the presentation, although the date for the ceremony hasn’t been set.
“I can’t wait,” said Karen, who intends to give the tags to her son Gordon, who lives nearby. “I’m so grateful that Darrell would do this for me.”