Neal Carpenter has been chasing a man he never knew, but always has felt a kinship with.
He has followed him from a curious distance, across the miles and through the years. He knew the man’s date of birth and that he was from College Station, Texas. He knew he was an Air Force pilot whose plane was shot down over Laos 50 years ago during the Vietnam War.
Until recently, he had never seen his photograph.
Although he carries part of the man’s name, he was not his father.
In two weeks, Neal will attend his memorial service.
“He always has been there, out of sight, this guy I was named after,’’ Neal said. “There was this big hole, this mystery. I knew very little, and I thought there was no way I would ever find out. But I did know if they ever brought his remains home I would go and pay my respects, because it always has been part of my life.’’
Neal is 43 years old, lives in Fayetteville and is a photography manager at the Home Depot warehouse in Locust Grove. Until late May, he lived in Macon with his wife and two children. He has been a photography manager for both Home Depot and Academy Sports. For several years, he was a wedding photographer in Middle Georgia.
He grew up in Byron, graduated from Peach County High School in 1994 and went to Georgia State and Mercer.
Neal was born on June 10, 1976, less than a month before America’s Bicentennial celebration. His mother, Rita Cofield, was convinced her firstborn child was going to be a girl.
“She was superstitious and didn’t have a boy name picked out,’’ Neal said. “I was going to be April Michelle, and that’s all there was to it.’’
His father, the late John Carpenter, was an aircraft mechanic in the Navy and was deployed overseas at the time. He arrived home in time for his son’s birth. When it became necessary to scramble and find a boy’s name, John Carpenter looked down at the POW/MIA bracelet he was wearing.
The engraved name was Neal Clinton Ward Jr. He had been listed as Missing in Action since June 13, 1969. An airman, his plane had been shot down over Laos in the jungles of Southeast Asia, nine days before his 24th birthday.
The Carpenters named their son Neal Ward Carpenter. (They had no way of knowing Ward actually went by “Clint.”)
When Neal would ask his parents about the origin of his name, they only could offer the few facts they knew. Ward’s status later was changed from Missing in Action to Killed in Action, but his remains were never found.
John Carpenter eventually stopped wearing the bracelet and placed it in a cabinet with other items he had collected from his travels.
“I knew it was in there, and I would take it out and look at it,’’ Neal said. “But I would always put it back.’’
On a trip to Washington, D.C., Neal and his family located Ward’s name on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial wall. When he was 12, he began wearing the bracelet on his right wrist.
“And I’ve worn it every day for the past 31 years,’’ he said.
Whenever he noticed someone else wearing a POW/MIA bracelet, he would ask about it. His was different than most. Instead of the traditional anodized red, it was a lighter color.
“A lot of people have thought it was some kind of medic alert bracelet, that I was a diabetic or something,’’ he said.
Neal stayed intrigued with the story, even though there never seemed to be any new chapters to add or tracks to follow.
That changed when he discovered a Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund website. There, he found photos and some biographical information on Ward. There were online comments from people who also had worn Ward’s POW/MIA bracelet. Ward’s sister had posted a message thanking them.
“All of a sudden, this story exponentially grew from where it had been,’’ Neal said. “It had been almost nothing for my entire life and then it just blew up. It was incredible. I could see what he looked like and what kind of plane he flew. It rounded out the story of who he was.’’
For 50 years, Ward has been talked about in the past tense. There was no closure because he had never been found.
Then, in the wee hours of Sept. 30, Neal began receiving a flood of email notifications from others following the Ward thread on the website. At 5 a.m., he looked at his phone.
There was a notice. A skull fragment found in December 2017 had been identified as Ward’s through DNA testing.
An hour later, Neal was carpooling to work, sitting in the passenger’s seat sending an email to Ward’s sister, Cassie Ferrell.
“I wrote her that I wanted be at his memorial service, that I needed to be there if it was OK with her,’’ he said.
Later that day, with a grateful heart, she responded.
The memorial service is planned for Nov. 2 in Reno, Nevada. At first, Neal had planned on going alone. But when friends Paul and Delise Knight, of Pineola Farms in Fort Valley, heard the story they insisted Neal also take his wife, Jessica, and children Emmelinn, 7, and Walden, 5.
A GoFundMe account has been established with a goal of $3,500. As of last week, a little more than $1,000 had been raised. It is listed under “Travel to POW/MIA burial of Namesake.’’
“The respect Neal will show to a man he never met, but has admired his whole life, will teach a lesson to his children they will carry with them for the rest of their lives,’’ Delise Knight said. “It’s all about making the world a better place.’’
Ed Grisamore teaches journalism at Stratford Academy in Macon. His column appears on Sundays in The Telegraph.