WALNUT CREEK -- For Kathy Strong, the final chapter in a mystery that has captivated her for most of her life is about to unfold.
It started when she wrapped a stainless steel bracelet around her wrist more than 38 years ago, on Christmas Day 1972, at age 12. The bracelet was engraved with the name of Army Spec. 5 James Leslie Moreland, who was Missing in Action, or MIA, in Vietnam.
Strong vowed to wear the bracelet until Moreland came home. And now, just days after the 43rd anniversary of his disappearance on Feb. 7, 1968, Strong is preparing to remove her bracelet -- Moreland's remains have been found.
They will be flown to Alabama, where they will be buried May 14 alongside those of his mother and father in the family plot. Strong plans to attend the services and to bury her bracelet with the remains.
"It's bittersweet news for me," Strong said, while looking over memorabilia she has collected about Moreland during the past four decades in her Walnut Creek home. "It's sad that I'll never get the chance to meet him."
But in a way, Strong said, she feels that she has gotten to know Moreland through her quest to find out more about him.
"It's hard to think of him as dead," she said, "because I've come to learn that he's very much alive in my heart."
Bay Area News Group featured Strong in a February 2008 story when she marked the 40th anniversary since Moreland was last seen in Lang Vei, Vietnam.
As a result of that story, Strong met Moreland's family and commanding officer. Her friend also visited the spot where he was last seen and brought her dirt, barbed wire and a bullet from the area, which she keeps in a memento box with Moreland's photo.
Through speaking to Moreland's family and fellow Green Berets, as well as reading books about the battle that likely took his life, Strong has pieced together a vivid picture of the man whose name she has carried with her. She has remained in such close contact with Moreland's family that she was one of the first people they called last month to share the news that his remains had been found.
His family has become an extension of her own, Strong said. Moreland's sister Linda Brown and her daughter Lisa Newlander, who live in the Seattle area, said they feel the same way about Strong.
"When we met her," Newlander said in a phone interview, "it was just amazing to hear how she'd gotten the bracelet and she'd never taken it off."
Brown gave Strong permission to bury the bracelet with her brother's remains.
"She's a fantastic lady," said Brown, who lives with Newlander. "All I can say to the families that still have loved ones missing is: 'Don't give up.' "
Born in 1945, Moreland was the fourth of five children, including two sisters and two older brothers who served in the Navy and Air Force.
He lived with his family in Alabama, then moved to Anaheim, where he played high school football. Brown was the youngest sibling, born in 1948.
"I thought he was a great man -- not just a war hero -- but a very outgoing person, who made friends very easily," Brown recalled. "I always bragged on him, I was so proud of him. The end of June '67 was the last time I saw him, when he went to Vietnam."
Brown, Brown's sister, Newlander, Newlander's son and Morelands's mother -- who died 10 years ago -- all provided DNA samples, which were used to identify the remains.
Like his family, Strong never gave up hope that Moreland or his remains would be found. Now, she's thinking about what it will be like to remove the bracelet that has become a fixture on her wrist.
"It's going to take some time to get used to," she said. "But, then I'll think of why I'm not wearing it and that brings peace to me. Now, I can take if off because he's finally coming home."