As a Child, I Wore this Vietnam POW’s Name on a Bracelet. 50 Years Later, I Met Him 

January 30, 2024   |   By Janelle Stafford

On January 13, 2024, the Air & Space Forces Association capped off a year-long remembrance marking the 50th Anniversary of the end of the Vietnam War with a beautiful commemoration service at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. Many of my AFA friends and colleagues are Vietnam Veterans, but during the week leading up to this “Celebration of Character & Courage” I had the honor of meeting an individual who brought this commemoration home for me in a remarkable way. 

I grew up in the ‘60s and ‘70s and have vivid memories of the Vietnam War and the politics associated with it. There are two events that really stuck with me about the war. 

When I was eight or nine, there was an older woman (at least she seemed older to me at the time!) who checked in swimmers for summer lessons at the pool each day. One day, she was listening to a transistor radio at her desk as my brother and I checked in. The voice on the radio was reading seemingly random numbers, one after the other, and she was listening intently with a look of concern on her face. I asked her what she was listening to, and she said, “I’m listening to the draft numbers—to see if my son is going to be drafted.” My heart truly hurt for the uncertain future this family might be facing. 

My father was a journalist and a World War II veteran, although he never talked about his experience in the war unless asked. So, even at that young age, our mealtime conversations were always full of discussion on current events and the politics of the day. Several years after that first memory, one of our dinner conversations centered on the negative attitudes and protests about the Vietnam War. During our conversation, he said, “Whether you agree with the war or not, the troops we have sent over are only doing the job they have been asked to do. Perhaps some of the anger about this war is being misplaced—it is certainly something to think about.” 

Maj. Gen. John L. Borling. In 1966, after 97 combat missions in Southeast Asia, then-Capt. Borling was shot down by ground fire northeast of Hanoi, North Vietnam. Seriously injured, he was captured and spent 6 1/2 years as a prisoner of war.

His comments weighed heavily on me. What could a 13-year-old actually do, here? I purchased a metal bracelet with the name of an American prisoner of war stamped on it to raise awareness of the POWs and MIAs in Vietnam. While it wasn’t much, I desperately wanted to show my support. I didn’t take the bracelet off until the end of the war and the return of our POWs in 1973. As the names of our POWs returning home were published in the newspaper, I scoured the list—and there he was! After more than six years as a POW in North Vietnam, Capt. John L. Borling of the U.S. Air Force was coming home. 

The organization that sold the bracelets provided some limited follow-up information after the POWs returned home. I was able to mail my bracelet to the man I didn’t know, but had thought about, prayed for, and worried over throughout the remainder of America’s involvement in the war. I wondered periodically about him over the years, but never in my wildest imagination did it ever occur to me that—almost exactly 50 years later—I would meet him. 

On January 11, I was in Arlington, Va., for the AFA Field Leader Summit, just two days before the Vietnam 50th Anniversary celebration at the National Cathedral. As AFA Emeritus Board member Jim Hannam talked about the details of the upcoming event, he mentioned several former POWs would be serving as ushers and listed off some names, including one Maj. Gen. John Borling. My head immediately snapped up and my eyes filled with tears. 

After the meeting I told Jim my story and, without hesitation, he said, “I know him. You two have to meet.” He sent Borling an email, and I was so grateful and thrilled for the potential opportunity to meet him in just two short days. 

I wouldn’t even have to wait that long, however. On the second day of the Field Leader Summit, Jan. 12, a small group of us entered a conference room where Tobias Naegele, the Editor in Chief of AFA’s Air & Space Forces Magazine, was wrapping up an interview with a gentleman—it was none other than Maj. Gen. John Borling. 

Janelle Stafford (left), AFA’s Central Area Director, meets Maj. Gen. John Borling, USAF (Ret.), a POW for more than six years during the Vietnam War. Courtesy photo.

I immediately introduced myself and shared my story—although, if I’m being totally honest, there was likely some incoherent, excited babbling also going on. I still laugh about that, today! But, with the help of my friends and colleagues, he was able to piece together the connection we had. It was an incredible full-circle moment. 

My dad has been gone many, many years, but how I wish I could pick up the phone and tell him this incredible story. Still, I like to think he knows. Whether one believes in such things or not (and I do), I could feel my father’s presence with me at the National Cathedral. It still gives me chills. What an honor to recognize those who served, some still missing, and many giving the ultimate sacrifice, and to reinforce the support that should have been there all along. 

For a small-town girl from Oklahoma, volunteering with AFA has given me much more than I have provided, and this is but one example. With an eye toward the great conflicts that potentially lie ahead of our nation, I pray that the lessons learned from the Vietnam War guide us all in supporting those who are and will be doing the job they were asked to do—like the Airman on my bracelet did 50 years ago.