WASHINGTON - Joel Daniel Coleman is one of more than 58,000 names engraved on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. He was an Army infantryman killed by a sniper's bullet in May 1966. On Memorial Day, his family honored his service at Memorial Wall.
When Army Spc. Coleman was in the Binh Dinh province in Vietnam, he had a photo of his new baby girl, Kelly, in his pocket. She was just a tot then. The two barely got to know each other before he was off to Vietnam.
Coleman was just 21 years old and in Vietnam for less than six months when he was shot and killed during Operation Davy Crockett.
"At the time, they were on their way to a mission,” said his daughter, Kelly Coleman-Rihn. “They were stopping for that night and they pulled out tequila and chili and they were going to celebrate Cinco de Mayo, and at that point, that is when my dad was shot by a sniper.”
She said growing up, her mother was always happy to talk about her father.
"I feel like I’m fortunate where my mom was always very open with me whenever I wanted to talk about my dad,” said Coleman-Rihn. “I know that wasn't always the case for other sons and daughters.”
In 1984, when Coleman-Rihn was 18 years old, she made her first trip to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall.
“A little heartbroken when I realized his name was so high I couldn't touch it,” she said. “I really wanted to touch his name. I can’t reach it. It’s fairly high on the wall. I just stood there for a little bit and I looked at his name. Just thought of a lot of what ifs.”
She was able to find the soldier who was with her dad when he was killed. She stays in touch with him today.
"He scooped my dad up and they tried to land a medevac helicopter,” Coleman-Rihn said. “Tried to land several times and they had to abort trying to land because the helicopter was coming under so much fire. So he said he just held my dad.”
Over time, curiosity and the emotion of never knowing her father took her to Vietnam – to the place where he was killed.
"I was surprised – a lot of healing,” she said. “A lot of people say, ‘Oh, did you have closure?’ Well, there is never closure, but there is definitely healing.”
Coleman-Rihn is part of a close-knit group of men and woman who lost their dads in the war. She comes to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial often with her daughters, Megan and Alyssa, who have been just as curious about their grandfather as Coleman-Rihn was about her dad.
Megan and Alyssa have been leaving notes about their major milestones to their grandfather. They say it is how they are able to connect and share moments with him. On this Memorial Day, the three women left mementos at the wall telling “Pap-Pap” how they were doing. Recently, there has been an engagement and a graduation.
Coleman-Rihn said she has lived her life in hopes of making her father proud. She just wishes she had a little more.
"You get tired of people telling you their memories,” she said. “You wish you had your own.”