Mystery footlocker

Editor’s note: This article is being reprinted with persmission from the Temple Daily Telegram where it was originally published on Monday, May 28. Tracy McCord Kehrer was five months old when a Viet Cong sniper’s bullet abruptly ended her father’s life in the jungles of Vietnam. 1st Lt. Burton Kyle McCord, then 24, was assigned as a troop adviser to the 1st Armored Personnel Carrier Squadron, Army of the Republic of Vietnam. According to official records, on April 14, 1966, McCord was accompanying this unit and a Republic of Vietnam infantry battalion on an operation in Quang Ngai province. Just after noon they encountered a company of Viet Cong concealed in fortified positions in the jungle. McCord moved along the assault line, a report said, urging friendly forces to charge enemy positions. During the attack, McCord died while being exposed to enemy fire in the process of coordinating infantry and armor units. Mrs. Kehrer, 41, of Killeen, said she spent her whole life knowing virtually nothing about her father until she opened a footlocker four years ago containing all his personal effects. ‘My mother gave it to me when I married and moved away,’ she said. ‘As a dutiful daughter I took charge of it, but didn’t open it because she had told me from childhood what a terrible person my father was – that he was cocky, cruel, overbearing, arrogant and abusive.’ She said after her dad was killed, her mother was totally angry. No family readiness groups or Gold Star Families existed to give support. Her mother received a death notice by Western Union delivered by taxi cab – just like in the movie ‘We Were Soldiers Once, and Young.’ ‘She remarried 16 months later and cut me and my older brother off completely from my dad’s whole family,’ Mrs. Kehrer said. ‘My father’s family approached them about continuing the relationship, but she said no. She told them ‘it was for the protection of the children so they wouldn’t be confused.’ She said in recent years she and her mother have become completely estranged over personal issues. Then in 2003, something happened that changed her life, she said. She found her father, or as Mrs. Kehrer prefers to say it, ‘He found me.’ ‘It’s a love story wrapped in a classic Greek tragedy,’ she said laughing softly. Her husband, Col. Mark Kehrer, was in the process in 2003 of deploying to Afghanistan with a civil affairs unit from Fort Sam Houston. ‘Mark and I were saying goodbye after the flag casing when a television cameraman came up and asked if we would do an interview, ‘ she said. ‘I was just bawling, but I said OK.’ That night her father’s mother saw the interview on the evening news, said Mrs. Kehrer. ‘I had not seen Jimma Lou in 32 years,’ she said. ‘She spent an entire career as a nurse in Brady – my father’s hometown. She was in her 80s now and retired to San Antonio. Later when we had our first talk, she told me she recognized me by my profile because it was the image of my father’s.’ Mrs. Kehrer said her grandmother initially contacted her by way of a daughter – one of Mrs. Kehrer’s aunts. ‘Aunt Barbara called me from Austin,’ she said. ‘I asked her if all the things I had been told about my dad were true. She just started crying. She said she didn’t know why I had been told those things. She said my dad was one of the greatest men who ever walked the earth.’ Mrs. Kehrer told her aunt about the unopened footlocker and asked if she would join her in Killeen to help her ‘walk’ her way through it. She said when they opened the locker, they found more than 100 letters sent from Vietnam by McCord to his wife. ‘They are very tender. They all begin with ‘my dearest or my darling,’ said Mrs. Kehrer. ‘When you read them, it’s obvious he’s very much in love with her.’ There were also voice letters in reel-to-reel tapes, two Silver Star Medals, two Bronze Star Medals, the National Order of Vietnam Medal, McCord’s wedding ring and scrapbooks of material from his childhood. She said McCord played football for Brady High School and graduated in 1959 as class valedictorian. ‘He was one of two boys in Brady history to go to West Point,’ said Mrs. Kehrer. She said one letter dated Nov. 8, 1965, asked whether his wife had given birth yet to their second child. He pondered whether it would be a girl or a boy. He could not know as he wrote the letter that a girl, Tracy, would be born the next day, Nov. 9. ‘If we do have another boy, I hope you name him Mark,’ wrote McCord. ‘I like that name. Right and left halfbacks – Mike and Mark McCord. Of course if it is a little girl, there is no problem.’ Mrs. Kehrer said the message gave her a delicious chill. Her father liked the name Mark. She had married a man named Mark – a career Army officer and West Point graduate. While her husband was deployed to Afghanistan, she mailed him her father’s wedding band to see if would fit. Col. Kehrer wrote her to say that it was a perfect fit. He wears it next to his Academy ring, she said. Mrs. Kehrer said her husband obtained a vintage reel-to-reel tape recorder so she could play the tapes from the footlocker. She has since had them digitized onto CDs. ‘When I heard his voice for the first time, it was like I had come home,’ she said. ‘You can tell he was a gorgeous man. He was everything I would have ever wanted in a father. He was adorable. And he was tender-hearted.’ On May 18 during a ceremony at the travelling Vietnam Memorial Wall at the Central Texas State Veterans Cemetery, Mrs. Kehrer placed a spray of roses at its base. ‘Just before my name was called to walk up and place the flowers, Mark called me from Iraq,’ she said. ‘I told him he had to call me back. I was about to lose it and start bawling.’ Afterwards she sat at the wall and traced her father’s name onto paper. ‘I sobbed because of the immensity of finding him after 40 years,’ she said. ‘It’s like the tide washing in over you.’ Dr. Tom Kyzar, a Temple veterinarian and retired Army colonel, said he was moved by a newspaper account he read about her experience at the wall. ‘I played football with Burt at Brady High School,’ Kyzar said. ‘The thing I remember about Burt is how he tended to rescue the guys who were at the bottom of the pecking order. He wouldn’t tolerate a bully. He stood up for the underdog.’ Kyzar said he recalls the day he was eating lunch in a College Station cafe while working on his veterinary degree at Texas A&M. ‘A guy walked in who I knew from Brady,’ said Kyzar. ‘He said, ‘Burt got killed.’ I was stunned.’ Kyzar said McCord was an ambitious person with a sense he really wanted to do well and go somewhere. ‘I thought a lot of Burt. I didn’t know anyone who didn’t. He is one of the few people I know who no one said anything bad about,’ Kyzar said. ‘And in a town as small as Brady, that says something.’ McCord’s last letter home was to his mother Jimma Lou and postmarked three days before he was killed. He said the end was finally in sight – making reference to the fact he had fewer than 30 days before returning stateside. He asked about the local reaction to the political crisis escalating over the Vietnam War. ‘I suppose quite a few of the young boys in Brady are sweating the draft right now,’ he wrote. ‘It is such a brutal, filthy war. I am so sorry that any of them will have to experience it.’

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