Penelope Gassman Gray, sister of the late Army Special Forces Sgt. Fred Gassman, still holds some hope that remains of her brother, who died 50 years ago in Laos while serving in the Vietnam War, might one day be found.
FORT WALTON BEACH — On a recent day, in the shadow of the Veterans Tribute Tower at Beal Memorial Cemetery, a flash of pink paper and a bouquet of colorful wildflowers marked the latest chapter in the nearly 50-year vigil that Penelope Gassman Gray has been keeping for her big brother.
The flash of pink — a bit of stationery cut into the shape of a heart, left at the tower on Memorial Day — was a letter to Fred Gassman, a U.S. Army Special Forces soldier who was badly wounded, and later presumed dead, during a mission in Laos nearly 50 years ago.
►RELATED: Local Vietnam POWs recall their time in captivity
Here’s the letter: “Sweet Brother, even after all these years, my heart still aches terribly. I miss you and love you. I will until the day I die and we can be together again. We are so very proud of you and your dedication to your country & to your comrades. You will never be forgotten. Not ever. You are in my heart forever.”
Elsewhere on the heart-shaped stationery was this simple notation: “Fred Gassman, Born Oct. 5, 1947. KIA Nov. 5, 1970. MIA Laos.”
Talking recently about the letter and flowers, Gray said it was, in part, a plea for people not to forget the American troops who remain classified as missing in action.
►RELATED: Remembering WWII: Local veterans look back 70 years
“This isn’t about me and my brother and my family,” said Gray, who has long been involved with the nonproft National League of POW/MIA Families. “I hope I’m representing everyone out there who is still painfully awaiting some news about their loved one.”
Gray herself is among that number of people awaiting some definitive news. She knows more than many of them, but that knowledge doesn’t bring any sense of closure, even after nearly a half-century.
“Finally, there’s acceptance, but there’s never, ever closure,” Gray said. “You always miss them, and you love them.”
► RELATED: The Vietnam War: Legacies and lessons
On Oct. 5, 1970, Sgt. Fred Gassman, who enlisted at the height of the Vietnam War and fulfilled his dream to become a Green Beret, was part of a joint American and Vietnamese reconnaissance patrol operating about 12 miles inside Laos when they were attacked by a hostile force.
Early in the afternoon, Gassman radioed that the patrol was being hit from three sides, was low on ammunition, and needed air strikes and an emergency extraction.
Then, according to military records, Gassman radioed, somewhat cryptically, “I’ve been hit, and in the worst way.”
Surviving members of the patrol would later say that they last saw Gassman “lying motionless with a large hole in his back.”
One search and recovery attempt, ultimately unsuccessful, was made, but further attempts to find him “were curtailed due to the difficult tactical situation in the area,” according to military records.
The Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA), part of the U.S. Department of Defense, has worked in the intervening years to find any trace of Gassman, so far without any luck.
“To be honest, I’m not real hopeful that they’ll ever find anything during my lifetime,” Gray said. “But they haven’t given up. They’re still hopeful."
It’s a hope to which Gray, although realistic about the chances, also still clings.
“I just turned 70,” she said, “my sister’s 71, my brother is almost 67 ... . Our hope is that during our lifetime, they (the DPAA) will find something.”
Should that happen, Gray would like to lay her older brother to his final rest in a funeral with full military honors.
“I want him back in his country,” she said.
While she still keenly feels the loss of her brother, Gray for years was literally haunted by his death. She got married soon after he died, she said, “and for quite a long time, I had dreams that he would show up at the wedding. And then I would wake up and just be crying.”
And those weren’t the only dreams that haunted her sleep. “For many, many years,” she said, “I’d have dreams of explosions and shooting” as if she were with her brother in the moments before he was injured.
“It was so bad, I woke up just terrified,” she said.
Gray got help for dealing with those dreams, but it wasn’t until just a few years ago that she truly began to place her brother’s death into some context.
In 2016, Gray happened to hear a news conference in which retired U.S. Marine Corps Gen. John Kelly, then chief of staff for President Donald Trump, spoke about the 2010 death of his son, Marine 1st Lt. Robert Kelly, who stepped on a land mine in Afghanistan.
At the news conference, Kelly said that at the time of their deaths, troops who have died “were doing what they wanted to do, and they were with who they wanted to be with, when they lost their lives.”
Kelly went on to say, “I get occasional letters from Gold Star families (families who have lost someone to military action) who are asking, ’Was it worth it?’ And I always go back with this: ’It doesn’t matter. That’s not our question to ask as parents. That person thought ― that young person thought it was worth it, and that’s the only opinion that counts.’”
Moved by the remarks, Gray wrote to Kelly about her struggle to deal with her brother’s loss.
“I am writing this letter to thank you from the bottom of my heart for finally, after 47 years, bringing me peace and comfort about his loss. You have lifted a nearly unbearable pain from my heart.”
frameborder="0" allow="accelerometer; autoplay; encrypted-media; gyroscope; picture-in-picture" allowfullscreen>