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Jardine: Vietnam bullet scarred Modesto-area survivor, family

An act of bravery and leadership. An enemy bullet. A death that still resonates within two families on opposite sides of the country 42 years later.

Army Sgt. James L. Clark died in a firefight May 6, 1968, as his platoon tried to sever the North Vietnamese army's supply lines on the infamous Ho-Chi Minh Trail. Yet his family in LaGrange and Modesto knew only that he died. The Army gave them few details about his mission, his actions and the final moments of his life.

Clark's father, Gilbert, accepted his son's death with sort of a patriotic resignation. Gilbert died in the early 1970s. Clark's mother, Jacqueline, wrote numerous letters to military brass over the years before she died in 1994. Her daughter, Marti King of Modesto, continued searching for information but came up empty.

"It's a story of a how much a mother begged to know more about her son's passing," said Brian Gibson of Sellersville, Pa. "She went to her grave wanting to know more about Jim."

Gibson, Jim Clark's best friend in the Army, was there when it happened. He knew the details Clark's family yearned for. But from that day in 1968, and for the next 16 years, he buried the moment deep in the recesses of a soul he thought no longer existed.

He contemplated suicide. He refused to talk about his Vietnam experiences with his counselor. He later learned he had a severe case of post-traumatic stress syndrome.

"I didn't care if I died," Gibson said. "I walked in a dead body for years."

Then one day, Gibson came across some letters he'd written to his grandparents in Delaware during the war, letters that detailed many of the things he'd seen and experienced in Vietnam. He'd written the last letter May 5, 1968, the day before Sgt. Jim Clark died.

"Two paper bags full of pictures and these letters came out," he said. "You recognize them immediately when they're in your handwriting."

He read them, and it hit him as he drove along a Pennsylvania interstate.

"It was like, 'Oh, my God. This connects me.' Things came back to me," he said. "There's something here I can't deny, and it's been a part of my life ever since then. There's a family out there and it was part of their lives, too."

Gibson decided to find Jim Clark's family and to tell them how their beloved son and brother died, how much he was respected by his unit, and to allow them to make some sense of his death.

It took some time to locate them. He finally did so in 2002 with help from the Internet.

By then, the Virtual Wall Web site listed those killed during the war. He left a comment asking how to reach Clark's family. A woman who had been one of Clark's schoolmates responded. The woman called Marti King and told them a man wanted to meet with Clark's family.

"I was scared to death," he said. "I didn't want to be a ghost walking into their lives."

King was hesitant at first. Did this man really know her brother?

"She wanted to validate me," Gibson said. "(Clark) had a silver tooth in his smile. As soon as I mentioned that, she knew I was for real."

For a year, King and her husband spoke frequently with Gibson on the phone. They went to visit him in Pennsylvania in 2003. Together they went to the Vietnam Wall, where they placed a book commemorating Clark's life.

Gibson told them how Clark volunteered to lead his squad as it worked its way toward higher ground that fateful day in Vietnam.

Fate as in the loss of Clark and as in what spared Gibson, who had asked to serve as a medic after being drafted. Instead, the Army sent him to learn electronics, specifically radios.

"Jim was up front," Gibson said. "He was hit."

Shot in the chest, Clark died instantly. Brian Cannada, the medic who was there because the Army had other plans for Gibson, didn't know Clark was dead when he responded to his first casualty in the field. He rushed up to help the fallen sergeant. He, too, was shot and killed.

Because of his electronics training, Gibson was handed a radio when another radioman was shot. He had to stay toward the back of the unit to keep in touch with the command post. He knew from the chatter up ahead someone had been shot and immediately feared it was Clark.

"That was the last time we attempted to probe up a mountain instead of down," Gibson said. "I slept that night next to their bodies. It was too late to take them out."

And too late for Clark's mother and father, who both died before Gibson contacted the family.

"My parents needed (to hear) it, but they didn't survive," King said.

Gibson has visited the Kings and other family members twice, coming to Modesto in 2007 and again in September 2009. He has tried to find the family of the slain medic, Cannada, with no luck.

That Gibson located the Kings became even more important just a few weeks ago, when Marti King was diagnosed with lymphoma and leukemia. She is in a local hospital.

"It was a just a miracle," Marti said. "He found us. He's given us a whole new idea of life and how it was (in Vietnam). It means a lot to me to know that Jim had a buddy -- a nice buddy, and he is a buddy."

Gibson said the miracle is being able to give part of Jim Clark back to his family, if only through an understanding of the way he died. He only wishes Jim's mom and dad could have been there to hear it, too.

Now, 42 years later, the death of Sgt. James Clark still resonates within these families: The Clarks and Kings, who now know what happened, and the Gibsons, because Brian Gibson is no longer a dead man walking.

"I can cry about it now," he said. "I know what stirs my heart, my emotions. I know what it is and I can tell somebody about it. I'm so thankful I can talk about it."

Jeff Jardine's column appears Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays in Local News. He can be reached at 578-2383 or jjardine@modbee.com

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