Display

Bracelet connects woman, former POW

TINKER AIR FORCE BASE, Okla. -- A California woman and a former Tinker officer captured during the Vietnam War were "reunited" the day before Thanksgiving after an absence of many years.

Kim Jaurena and her husband, Greg, were at their home in Murrieta, Calif., cleaning out their bedroom closet recently, when he chanced upon a cedar box that had been sitting idle on a shelf for several years. Inside the wooden box was a metal bracelet bearing the name "Capt. Leroy Stutz" and the date "12-2-66."

It's a POW/MIA bracelet that Mrs. Jaurena acquired more than 40 years ago while attending junior-high school in Coalinga, Calif. "I don't remember exactly how I got it," she said. "I have a faint memory of sending off for it, but I don't know where. I do remember that I was the only person I knew who had one."

The silver bracelet was engraved with the name of an Air Force pilot who was shot down over North Vietnam on Dec. 2, 1966. Initially he was listed as missing-in-action, but later was upgraded to prisoner-of-war.

"I wore the bracelet for several years," Mrs. Jaurena recalled. "I would look at it every day and wonder what had happened to Captain Stutz."

Time marched on. She got busy with homework and hanging out with friends, graduated from high school, got married in 1981 and had twins five years later, which led to the myriad duties attendant with raising a family: changing diapers, cooking meals, Cub Scouts and Girl Scouts, football practice, PTA meetings, trips to the doctor and the dentist, etc., etc., etc. The bracelet, meanwhile, was squirreled away in a small cedar box and forgotten, until it reappeared last week.

Mrs. Jaurena "surfed" the Internet, searching for information about Captain Stutz. She came across a story published 14 months ago in the Tinker Take Off, in which retired Col. Leroy Stutz was the featured speaker at the National POW/MIA breakfast at the Tinker Club on Sept. 21, 2012.

Mrs. Jaurena sent an email to the base newspaper on the night of Nov. 25. "I recently came across the bracelet and thought he might be interested in having it," she wrote. "I was hoping you could connect us by passing on my email address to him."

Colonel Stutz, 74, was contacted at his home in Oklahoma City on Nov. 26, and the "reunion" occurred online Nov. 27. "I guess Captain Stutz was released not long after I got the bracelet" in about 1971, Mrs. Jaurena discovered. "I was thrilled to find out that he survived and is still alive... It is amazing to correspond with him."

Then-Captain Stutz was repatriated on March 4, 1973. "When I first returned home" after six years as a POW in North Vietnam, "I received a lot of those bracelets, mostly from friends and neighbors in my hometown" of Effingham, Kan., he said. "Then a lot of them just showed up in the mail. For the last five or 10 years, it has been about one a year, many from people like Kim who find them after a long time."

The ex-POW, who later was named deputy commander for Maintenance of the 552nd AWACS wing at Tinker AFB, said that when he got back home and found out about the bracelets, "I thought someone had hit on a great way to make money. Later I learned it wasn't a money-maker, it was a way to raise awareness about the fact that the Viet Cong were not living up to agreements they had signed years before."

In fact, the colonel continued, "I believe, but can't prove, that the bracelet idea was probably what got the VC to start allowing us to send and receive letters. I got my first one in late 1970" after four years in captivitiy.

Lengthy AF career

Leroy Stutz had a lengthy, successful career in the U.S. Air Force, even after more than six years as a North Vietnamese POW.

The Kansas native graduated from the U.S. Air Force Academy in 1964, earned his pilot's wings in 1965, and less than a year later he was deployed to Udorn Royal Thai Air Base, Thailand.

Then 27-year-old 1st Lieutenant Stutz was awarded the Silver Star for bravery exhibited during a mission near Hanoi, North Vietnam, on Nov. 23, 1966. He was cited for "exposing himself for 55 minutes over hostile territory in a highly sophisticated and lethal anti-aircraft defense structure" to obtain "the required intelligence" on his unit's assigned target.

Less than two weeks later, on Dec. 2, 1966, he was flying his 85th combat mission (the 67th over North Vietnam; the others were in Laos and South Vietnam), conducting reconnaissance after a bombing raid 25 miles north of Hanoi. He had dropped down for a closer look at some camouflaged railroad tracks and railway cars, and was traveling at 660 knots and an altitude of 75 feet, "barely over the trees," he related, when his RF-4 Phantom was hit by ground fire.

He and the aircraft commander were forced to eject and parachuted directly into a North Vietnamese village, where both were captured immediately. The aircraft commander, Capt. Bob Gregory, survived the plane crash but was knocked unconscious and later died.

Lieutenant Stutz was held captive for 2,283 days, during which he was routinely beaten and otherwise tortured, and was shuffled about among several POW camps in the North, including the notorious Hanoi Hilton. He also was starved: at one point his weight had dropped from 175 pounds to 105, he said.

He finally was repatriated on March 4, 1973. Although he was promoted to captain during his captivity, he was grounded medically after his liberation because of an injury sustained when he "tried to break the butt of a rifle with my head."

After his return to duty, Captain Stutz was assigned to the Air Force Academy, where he served in multiple roles. Over the next 21 years he held various levels of command. He was promoted to major in 1974, to lieutenant colonel in 1978, and to colonel in 1984. He retired from active duty on June 30, 1994, after 33 years of military service (which included three years in the Army National Guard before his appointment to the Air Force Academy).

He and his wife of 49 years, Karen, live in south Oklahoma City.