When Megan Rihn wanted to get to
know her grandfather better, she grabbed a pen and paper and
marched into Susan Coleman Fowler's home and began riddling
her grandmother with questions. Megan, 10, turned the notes
she took from that interview into a book, simply titled
Joel D. Coleman.
Megan's hardbound book now has
a place of honor in the library at Shaler Area Middle School
in Glenshaw, Pa. Written and illustrated by Megan Rihn, the
15-page book recounts in aching detail the story of her
family's loss following her grandfather's death in Vietnam.
"My grandfather's name is Joel
D. Coleman. He enlisted in the U.S. Army in January 1965.
After basic training, he received his orders for Vietnam on
November 18, 1965. He was assigned to the First Cavalry
Division Airmobile. My grandfather had only one month to spend
with his wife and two-month-old daughter before he left."
Her grandmother knew, Megan
wrote, that "Vietnam was a very dangerous place.''
Susan Coleman Fowler's worst
fears were realized when her husband, Sp4 Coleman, was killed
in action on May 5, 1966, while serving with Alpha Company,
Second Battalion, Seventh Cavalry Regiment, First Cavalry
Division. He was 21 years old.
Megan's mother, Kelly Coleman
Rihn, was only seven months old when her father died. She has
no memory of him. But as a board member of Sons and Daughters
in Touch, Kelly has worked hard to retain the memory of her
father for the sake of her daughters, Megan and Alyssa. Megan
has grown up making regular trips to the Vietnam Veterans
Memorial in Washington, D.C. She's studied her mother's photos
of her grandfather as a young soldier. And she has been
encouraged to talk freely about the grandfather she never
So when Megan was given a class
assignment to create a book in February 2003, she immediately
wanted to write about her grandfather. "I thought it would be
a neat way to learn more about him,'' Megan said.
Megan drafted the questions for
her grandmother. "I wanted to know about when my grandfather
received his orders to Vietnam,'' she said. It helped that her
grandmother was approachable. "I never felt like there wasn't
anything I couldn't ask her about my grandfather,'' she said.
Megan had many questions for
How did his leaving make you
feel? His leaving put a hole in her heart.
What was his last gift to you?
A gold watch.
What was your biggest fear?
My grandmother had a feeling she would never see him again and
she would be left to raise my mom alone.
Did he write you from Vietnam?
My grandmother received many letters from Vietnam. She
wrote to my grandfather every day and sometimes she sent him
care packages. He would never tell anything that would make
her worry. But once again, she knew better.
Was there any support for her,
other than family? She told me of an organization called
the Viet Wives Club. The club was a group of women from the
Pittsburgh area that would meet once a week at Carnegie Mellon
University. It was a support group for wives whose husbands
were in Vietnam. The women would talk and share their
loneliness, sadness, and fears. The fear of their husbands'
deaths hovered over them.
Ultimately, Megan said, what
she longed to understand was how the death of her grandfather
changed her grandmother's and mother's lives. Megan's
questions astounded both her grandmother and mother. "My
mother called me after Megan had been over to interview her
and said she couldn't believe the questions that Megan came up
with,'' Kelly Coleman Rihn said.
Megan dismisses her insights
with a shrug of her slight shoulders. "I don't know how I came
up with the questions. They were just things I thought
And yet, Megan said, the most
surprising story she unearthed wasn't about soldiers and war,
but flowers and love.
The night before my grandmother
received the telegram from the Army, she took my mom out to
buy her first pair of shoes. It was May 5, 1966. She told me
that when they were shopping, she noticed the strongest aroma
of roses. This was approximately 6:30 p.m. The following day,
an officer and chaplain arrived at her house to tell her that
my grandfather had been killed at 6:30 p.m. the day before.''
It took Megan a month to
compile her notes and illustrations into a story format. The
First Cavalry insignia, a Purple Heart, and a copy of the
fateful telegram are included. There also is a sketch of Joel
Coleman's name highlighted on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. A
single rose is propped against the panel.
"My grandfather's name, Joel D.
Coleman, can be found on panel 7-E, line 29 of the Vietnam
Veterans Memorial. This is my grandfather's name in history.''
Karen Spears Zacharias is
the daughter of David P. Spears, KIA, July 24, 1966.