In a life cut too short by the Vietnam War, Spc. Robert McAferty left behind a wife who carried on his memory and a son who never knew him. For years, they hid their feelings when friends and peers called the war that killed him a mistake.
“He was a hero, just like any of these other young men going to Iraq and Afghanistan,” said his widow, Geraldine McAferty of Lacey.
Today, the man she married just before he went to war is getting better recognition — part of a project that continues to gather photos of the war’s casualties for a future addition to the Vietnam Memorial Wall in Washington D.C.
McAferty’s family heard about the effort after The News Tribune and The Olympian published stories about the project in September. The effort is led by Jannah Hoehn, a florist from Hawaii who’s trying to fill gaps in the memorial’s photo collection and is focused now on dead service members from Washington.
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The newspaper stories helped 26 families in Pierce and Thurston counties contribute photos of their loved ones to the memorial.
Eventually, those photos will be displayed at a museum the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund plans to build on the U.S. Capitol Mall.
“We did well,” said Hoehn, who has been gathering photos of fallen Vietnam veterans for six years.
Her efforts prompted Dennis Daily to contribute a photo of his brother, Cpl. David Daily of Tacoma, who died in Vietnam in January 1968.
Daily found the photo in a box of family keepsakes.
“This is a box I haven’t opened in 45 years,” Daily, who now lives in Gig Harbor, thought when he looked through his brother’s things after learning about the memorial project.
The project also inspired Daily to learn more about the battle that killed his brother. He discovered that a medic from Texas named Clarence Sasser received a Medal of Honor for trying to keep troops alive after their helicopters landed in the middle of an enemy position.
The photos are being collected through a memorial fund site. Photos of 22 service members from Pierce County and eight from Thurston County are still missing. Hoehn would love to get her hands on them to go with the more than 700 other photos from around the country that she’s already collected.
A total of 138 military service members from South Sound counties died in Vietnam. More than 58,000 U.S. military service members died in the war.
The McAferty family had been meaning to submit Robert’s photo to the memorial fund for some time. He has a 9-year-old grandson named Parker who had questions about the war and found the website while typing Robert McAferty’s name into search engines.
The newspaper articles reminded the family to ensure that Robert was included in the memorial.
“I’m just very grateful for what (Hoehn) does,” said Dawn Cypriano-McAferty, 38, Geraldine McAferty’s daughter-in-law. “When you look at the (Vietnam Memorial Wall), it’s so cold. That picture, it gives the name a personality. It shows there was a human and there were people who loved him.”
Geraldine, now 65, met Robert McAferty when they were 16-year-old students at Olympia High School.
“You met him once and you wanted to be friends with him,” she said.
They dated for a couple years. Robert was drafted after graduating. He joined the Army and reported to Fort Lewis. They got married.
They wrote frequently when he got to Vietnam. Dawn recently found their letters, including one in which Robert wrote about his wedding ring.
He was thinking about the ring as a symbol of his future with Geraldine. He told her he didn’t want to wear it in combat.
“I can understand why Gerry never remarried. There was a true deep love between them,” Dawn said.
Robert was killed in March 1969. His son, Robert Jr., was born in July of that year.
Robert Jr. didn’t want to talk for this story. But his wife says he has kept his dad’s wedding ring.
“It’s come full circle,” Dawn said.