The Official Voice of Vietnam Veterans of America, Inc. ®
An organization chartered by the U.S. Congress

May/June 2004

Megan's Book of Love


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 knew.

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 her grandmother:

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 about.''

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.


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