By Peter Finney Jr., Clarion Herald
Anyone who served in combat in the rice paddies of Vietnam and came home has lived two lives, one of which, understandably, is better kept in a lockbox.
Deacon Bill Jarrell was raised as a Southern Baptist, but he didn’t have much of any religion as an Army helicopter pilot in 1967 after months of experiencing carnage that made it almost impossible to believe in “a loving God.”
When he received a letter in November 1967 from his mother-in-law Bernice Pomet, Bill, then 21, didn’t know what to think. Inside the envelope was a strange gift – a two-sided, silver-colored medal attached to a stainless steel chain. One side of the medal bore the image of St. Christopher – “St. Christopher, Be My Protector.” On the other side was St. Jude, the patron saint of impossible causes: “Pray for Us, St. Jude.”
“I knew a little bit about the Catholic faith and I occasionally went to church with my mother-in-law, but she never put any pressure on me to become Catholic,” Bill said, noting that he and his wife Linda had been married at St. Catherine of Siena Church while he was home on leave in 1966. “I really didn’t know the intricacies of the faith. I didn’t have a clue what the medal was.”
Just then, Bill’s best friend, fellow helicopter pilot Bobby Holman of Texas, a Catholic, walked by.
“I asked Bobby, ‘What’s this for?’” Bill said. “He told me about St. Christopher and what it was for. After we finished talking, I started to hang it up on a little nail on the post near my cot.”
“You’re not going to wear it?” Bobby asked.
“I’m not going to wear it – I don’t even know what it’s about,” Bill replied.
“Well, can I have it?” Bobby asked.
Bill handed over the medal, and Bobby placed it around his neck.
A few days later, Bill’s Huey was shot down while transporting troops, and in the crash landing, he crushed his elbow. Bobby was flying his Huey next to Bill’s, and when he saw his friend’s copter go down, he swooped in and landed on the dry rice paddy and evacuated Bill and his three other crewmen to safety.
Bill eventually was sent back to the U.S. to heal, awaiting his next assignment, which is when another letter came in late January: Bobby Holman had been shot down and killed in a firefight on Jan. 4, 1968. His body had been taken back to Irving, Texas, for burial.
“I was completely distraught, especially since he had already been buried and I couldn’t go to the funeral,” Bill said.
Bill didn’t know anyone in Bobby’s family, but he did know that Bobby had a fiancé, Jodi Pettijohn, back in Texas. He wrote Jodi a letter.
“I just apologized for not being there,” Bill said.
Several years ago, after a story appeared in the Clarion Herald about how Bill had found his faith through his experiences with Bobby in Vietnam and through the quiet witness of his wife, leading to his eventually being ordained as a permanent deacon in 2006, Bobby’s sister, Mary H. Taken, got in contact with Bill.
They exchanged stories about the man they both knew in different ways. At the end of their telephone conversation, Bill asked Mary if she had ever been able to look through Bobby’s gear and if she had come across the St. Christopher medal.
“She called me back a couple of weeks later but said there was no St. Christopher medal in his gear,” Bill said. “So, I just assumed it was lost. Maybe someone else in Vietnam had it or someone else in the unit took it. I just felt it was gone.”
Bill finally summoned the courage to visit Bobby’s gravesite in Texas and met Bobby’s brother Roy. He asked again about the medal, but Roy had no clue as to its whereabouts.
This past December, the National Vietnam War Museum in Weatherford, Texas, held its annual “Christmas at the Wall” ceremony and invited the Holman family to light the Christmas tree in Bobby’s honor. Bill and Linda were special guests.
Bill got to meet Bobby’s seven brothers and sisters. Roy, whom Bill had met at the cemetery years earlier, introduced him to another brother, Jim Holman.
“Jim reached into his pocket and said, ‘I think I have something for you,’” Bill said.
Jim pulled the chain with the St. Christopher medal from his pocket.
“That was the first time I’d seen that medal in over 50 years,” Bill said. “It was heartfelt. It was emotional. The only thing I could think of asking him when he held it up for me to take was, ‘Is that for me?’ And he said, ‘Yes, you take it.’ It was right at twilight.”
Jim explained that five days after Bobby’s funeral, his mother gave him the medal.
“Every time Jim went on a trip, he carried it with him in his pocket,” Bill said.
The medal is now around Deacon Jarrell’s neck for the first time, and “that’s where it’s going to stay.” He also places it at night in front of his home altar in Terrytown. As it turned out, before Deacon Jarrell received the medal in Vietnam, his mother-in-law knew of a friend who was going to Rome, and the medal was blessed at a general audience by Pope Paul VI in 1967.
“Not only did the country and his family lose a hero, but we lost a brother, we lost an uncle, we lost a son and we lost a guy who would have been a tremendous dad,” Deacon Jarrell said.
Jodi Pettijohn, Bobby’s fiancé, never married.
Peter Finney Jr. can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.