This 4th Of July: Accessorize with Meaning | Memorial Bracelets
Historically, women’s jewelry was most often used for ornamentation or to signify social status, but men’s jewelry dates back to the time when a man wore his accomplishments in the most literal sense—trophies from the hunt (necklaces made of teeth and claws), spoils of war (weapons and ornaments taken in conquest), or, somewhat later, military honors conferred by kings or chieftains in the form of necklaces, armbands, bracelets, crowns, or medals. The exact shapes and patterns of these honors changed from culture to culture and region to region (Celtic torcs, Grecian laurels, Native American warbonnets), but the concept dates back to the roots of human culture.
Just as critically, these mementos were not only important to the soldiers themselves, but also to their families, colleagues, and heirs. As such, these honors were not only worn in pride, but sometimes worn or preserved in memorial, by survivors honoring those who previously served.
And, let’s be real. The 4th of July is about family, and great food, and parades, and fireworks, but it’s even more fundamentally a celebration of the sacrifices made almost 250 years ago. So, while you’re dressing for this year’s 4th of July party—take a minute to think about your accessories. Is it possible to combine fashion with a more powerful statement?
U.S. Military Honors
In the United States, formal military decorations date back to the War of Independence. A single, specialized award was given to three soldiers who captured a critical traitor in 1780, but George Washington established the first formal system of awards in 1782, through the Badge of Military Merit, which could be conferred on any individual soldier who demonstrated “not only instances of unusual gallantry in battle, but also extraordinary fidelity and essential service.” This merit-based system may seem intuitive today, but in the 18th century, British military awards had been exclusively reserved for high-ranking officers; the idea that any common soldier could demonstrate “virtuous ambition” and be acknowledged in a national “book of merit” was (appropriately) revolutionary. The cash-poor nascent U.S. army didn’t have the resources for elaborate decorations, but these hand-stitched badges were highly prized, and eventually gave shape and color to the modern purple heart.
As the military become more organized, so did the system of military honors. But the idea that civilians could take charge of honoring soldiers occurred almost 200 years later, during the height of the Vietnam War.
Vietnam Memorial Bracelet:
This particular movement grew out of an unlikely conjunction of personalities, but it found support across the United States and inspired national unity in a time of deep political division...
It started in 1969, when WWII Air Force veteran and Vietnam photojournalist Bob Dornan (later Republican Congressman Dornan) wanted to help draw public attention to American soldiers being held prisoner in Vietnam.
At the time, Dornan was in contact with VIVA (Voices in Vital America), a conservative, college-based organization designed to counter the flag-burning student groups who were actively protesting the war. He introduced a small group of VIVA students to a small group of women whose husbands were missing in action in Vietnam, and these two groups worked together to strategize ways of drawing public attention to American prisoners of war being held in Vietnam. Their first thought was to circulate petitions and letters, demanding that Hanoi officials adhere to the Geneva Convention; another person suggested flying out to Vietnam to participate in protests (an idea forcefully vetoed by both the military and their parents) but, during discussions, one of the women asked Dornan about a bracelet that he happened to be wearing at the time. Dornan explained that he had gotten the bracelet from a Vietnamese hill tribesman, and that he wore it in memory of the suffering that war brought to so many people.
That offhand comment sparked a new train of thought, and inspired two of the students, Carol Bates Brown and Kay Hunter, to see if it was possible to make bracelets that could be worn in memory of specific soldiers who were missing or captured. They didn’t have any funding, but they persuaded a small Santa Monica artist to make them ten sample bracelets, bearing the name, rank, and date of loss of soldiers who were missing in action or known to be prisoners of war.
The idea was to sell the very simply designed bracelets at a relatively low cost (silver for $2.50 or copper for $3), and to use the profits to create literature and advertising materials that would draw public attention to the POW/MIA American soldiers. In part because of Dornan’s support, the idea rapidly caught on, but the real turning point came when Sonny and Cher appeared on live TV wearing the memorial bracelets.
At that moment, the bracelets crossed the political divide, because even Democrats who were actively opposing the war agreed that it was incredibly important to support those individual American soldiers: Nixon and McGovern, Bob Hope and John Wayne, Martha Raye and Dennis Hopper. United only on this one idea.
Sales boomed, and the students were soon fielding requests for upwards of 12,000 bracelets every day. Between 1970 and 1976, they distributed over five million bracelets, with the names of roughly 1,450 men. The people who received the bracelets often had no personal connection to the soldier whose name was engraved on the tribute, but they used the bracelet as a reminder to pray and to advocate: “People began to think of them as a real person—which they were—but someone who was a friend, or part of the family. Sometimes they didn’t know anything about the guy. That didn’t matter.” The bands made the concept of POW/MIA advocacy intensely personal, and you can still encounter senior citizens who have been wearing their memorial bracelets for decades.
9-11 Memorial Bracelets
This concept of the memorial bracelets was revived in 2001, when Lenya Heitzig created a new generation of bracelets called “Mercy Bands” (Bearing Another’s Name Daily) engraved with the names of the civilians and first responders killed in 9-11. Her goal was to encourage people to pray for victims’ surviving family members, and to raise money that was then donated in support. In other words, the mercy bands generated both emotional and practical support. In practice, they also expanded the idea of the memorial bracelet beyond the military world and into the civilian sphere. Again, the idea was explosive, and 15,000 bracelets sold in the first 24 hours.
People who received the bracelets were often inspired to research the person whose name they received, and sometimes to contact the families in support. In turn, each surviving family member knew that, across the US, fellow Americans were wearing a memorial tribute for the person that they lost. Again, it fostered an incredible sense of unity.
Who Will You Remember?
Today, you can order a customized memorial bracelet for anyone, under any circumstances, but it isn’t the engraving that’s particularly important. As Dornan discovered in 1969, it’s not the bracelet, but the value that you assign to it that really matters.
So, for this 4th of July, take a minute and reflect. Consider the Americans who gave their lives in the Revolutionary War, the millions more who died in the Civil War and, indeed, the Civil Rights movement. Our country was shaped and reshaped by millions of personal sacrifices, and it is worth our time to personalize our memorials.
Who will you remember?
- Sgt. William Brown, 5th Connecticut Regiment, Revolutionary War
- Surgeon Mary Edwards Walker, Civil War
- Pvt. Aaron Celestino, US Army, WWII
- Activist James Chaney, Congress of Racial Equality, Civil Rights Movement
- CW2 Dan Maslowski, 5-2-70, Vietnam War
- Lt. Robert J. Dwyer, U.S. Navy, Gulf War
- NYFD, Peter James Ganci, Jr., 9-11
So many names. So many lives.
A current list of POW/MIA soldiers is maintained by the DPAA at: https://dpaa.secure.force.com/dpaaOurMissing