BRIERFIELD, Ala. -- They came to pay respects to a fallen Green Beret killed 43 years ago.
They came Saturday from all over the country and all over Alabama and even Walnut Creek. About 400 crowded around a gravesite at a little country cemetery about 40 miles south of Birmingham.
They came to pay tribute to James Leslie Moreland, born in Bessemer Sept. 29, 1945, killed in Vietnam Feb. 7, 1968 -- but whose remains were only recently positively identified and brought stateside.
"I hope everyone knows why we are here today," said Col. Paul Longgrear, Moreland's commanding officer, in the eulogy. "We are not here to celebrate a burial. He was already buried in the debris of war. We are here today to celebrate a homecoming."
Moreland was buried Saturday at Ashby Cemetery in Bibb County in a spot long ago reserved for him, between his mother and father.
A 21-gun salute punctured the rural quiet. When taps played, retired and active military, at least one-third of the crowd, snapped salutes.
Then roaring through the clouds came four Navy jets in formation, until one jet dramatically peeled away, symbolizing the departure of this fallen soldier.
Moreland was a 22-year-old Special Forces medic when he was last seen mortally wounded at Lang Vei on the South Vietnamese border in a battle remembered as the first time the Vietnamese used tanks. In 1978, the Army declared Moreland dead, although his body had not been recovered.
His mother, Gladys Parks, went to her grave, knowing her son was probably dead, but refusing to give up, Moreland's sisters said.
"When they asked Mom, 'Do you want him to be declared dead,' she said 'no,'" said Linda Brown, 62. "She wanted him to be brought home first."
Several excavations at the battle site over the years yielded numerous bits of remains that took years to identify. Late last year, DNA from family members was a match for Moreland. The family was notified earlier this year and prepared for the burial in the family cemetery.
Before burial Saturday, a 51-year-old Walnut Creek woman removed her MIA bracelet featuring Moreland's name and put it in the casket. Kathy Strong had worn it ever since she received it as a Christmas present at the age of 12, in 1972.
"Although I'm not wearing the bracelet any more, he will be with me the rest of my life," said a tearful Strong.
After a 2008 Bay Area News Group feature on Strong and the 40th anniversary of Moreland's disappearance, the soldier's family contacted her and they started a relationship. A friend visited the spot where he was last seen and brought her dirt, barbed wire and a bullet from the area, which she kept as mementos.
Strong researched Moreland's Green Beret unit and learned more about the young man whose name adorned her bracelet.
Once his remains were identified, Strong vowed to attend his funeral.
By later afternoon Saturday, her wrist was bare.
The night before the burial there was a standing room only memorial service at the American Village in Montevallo in which Gov. Robert Bentley made a surprise appearance. He gave the family a flag that had flown at the state capital.
"Never in my dreams would I have thought it would be like this," said Moreland's older sister, Edna Anita LeMoine, 73, of Olympia, Wash.
At the cemetery Army officers presented LeMoine with the flag from the casket. They had folded the flag and tucked in three spent brass M-16 shells representing: duty, honor, country.
Moreland's childhood years were spent in Alabama, before he finished high school in Anaheim, where he became an all-county football player at Western High School.
At least two dozen retired and active Green Berets attended from around the country.
"It's been worth waiting 43 years to see this," said William Amelung, a 65-year-old retired Green Beret who trained with Moreland and "earned our berets together"
"If you look at history, there would not have been this kind of support in '68," Amelung said.
Retired Sgt. Major Dennis Thompson served with Moreland at Lang Vei and traveled from Washington state to attend the service. When asked why, the fellow Green Beret said simply, "Because he would have done the same for me."