Honoring the Grandfather I Never Met: Spec. 4 Joel Coleman


Honoring the Grandfather I Never Met

by Megan Rihn

JOEL DANIEL COLEMAN is honored on Panel 7E, Row 29 of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.


Ever since I can remember, I have been traveling to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial with my family to honor my grandfather, SP4 Joel D. Coleman, who was killed in action in Vietnam in May of 1966.

My mother was a baby when he died, so neither of us ever knew him. But the stories my grandmother tells about him have been an important part of our family tradition.

I like the story about the day my mom was born. The Army was not going to allow my grandfather to come home to Pittsburgh to see my mom. He did everything he could to get there, but they would not allow it. My 4’11” great-grandmother then decided to take on the U.S. Army and get him home to see his newborn daughter. As it turns out, she got her way! My grandfather showed up at the hospital with flowers and surprised my grandmother. Everyone knew that he was coming home except my grandmother. She was thrilled.

My grandfather had to leave for Vietnam on Dec. 22, 1965. My mom was only two and a half months old. His leaving was very difficult, but being three days before Christmas made it even worse. He gave my grandmother a gold watch that year—little did she know that it would be the last gift he would ever give her. The night my family took him to the airport, he told my grandmother that the Army was sending him someplace safe. He didn’t want her to worry, but she knew better. Vietnam was a very dangerous place. His leaving put a hole in her heart. She had a feeling that she would never see him again and that she would be left to raise my mom alone.

My grandmother wrote to my grandfather every day and sometimes sent him care packages. In his letters, he would tell her how things were going with him and his unit, but never anything that would make her worry. But once again, she knew better. My grandfather also sent letters to family and friends. Only from these letters did she know how terrible things really were for him. He would spend many weeks away from camp, living in foxholes and getting very little sleep. He would jump out of helicopters behind enemy lines and come into close combat with the North Vietnamese Army. He sent several pictures of himself and his buddies enjoying the care packages sent from home. The pictures show that life there was rough, but he and his buddies still had some good times together.

My grandmother described to me the night my grandfather died. The night before she 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, at approximately 6:30 p.m. The following day, an officer and chaplain sent by the Army arrived at her house to tell her that my grandfather had been killed at 6:30 p.m. the day before. He was so young, only 21 years old.

My family remembers and honors my grandfather at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Attending Memorial Day, Veterans Day and a few Father’s Day ceremonies, as well as volunteering at The Wall, have been a huge part of my life over the past 18 years.


I have learned a lot about the Vietnam War and The Wall from those visits, and I have also learned a lot from doing multiple school projects about the Memorial and what it means to my family. In fifth grade, I was given an assignment to interview someone about a major event in his or her life and write a book about it. As a curious 10-year-old who had grown up hearing stories about my grandfather, I chose to interview my grandmother, Susan Coleman, about when my grandfather received his orders for Vietnam. My book was picked out of 150 submitted and put in our middle school’s library. Four copies of the book were printed and bound: one for my school, one for my grandmother, one for my mom and one to leave at The Wall.

I also chose to incorporate the Vietnam Veterans Memorial into my high school graduation project. I decided to raise money for the Education Center at The Wall, which will be a place to tell the stories and put faces to the names of the many men and women whose names are inscribed on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

I wrote a letter asking for donations and sent it to veterans’ organizations around the Pittsburgh area, as well as a few others nationally. I also collected donations at my high school. Overall, I raised $1,078—more than double my original goal.

This project was special to me because of my family’s connection to The Wall. It is important to me that my grandfather is remembered and his story is told, as well as the stories of the more than 58,000 other service members whose names are on The Wall.

I know that, as time goes on, I will continue learning about my grandfather’s life. And someday, I will tell those stories to my children and visit The Wall with them, just as my mom and grandmother did with me. My grandfather will always be a hero to my family, and we will never forget him.