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BRACELET FROM VIETNAM WAR MAKES SPECIAL CONNECTION

For the last 34 years, former Buffalonian Sue Weisbeck has been wearing a bracelet bearing the name of Air Force Maj. Robert E. Rausch, whose plane was shot down during the Vietnam War.

"I wear it when I go out anywhere," said Weisbeck, formerly of the hamlet of Town Line, who moved with her family to Wyoming in 1980. "It looks pretty good, except it's beat around the edges. But the name is very apparent on it."

Asked why she has worn the bracelet all these years, she said: "He gave his life up for our country."

Now Weisbeck, a resident of Cody, Wyo., wants to give the bracelet to Rausch's family, which used to live in Hamburg.

After much searching, The Buffalo News found Rausch's widow, Barbara, living in Tequesta, Fla., and trying to get the government to place some kind of memorial to Rausch in Arlington National Cemetery.

"Oh, how wonderful," she said when told about the bracelet. "I think that would be wonderful. I'm glad that you were able to do that. Thank you for pursuing it."

Her daughter, Betsy Gant, 36 -- who was 2 when her father disappeared -- fought back a tear as she remembered the years without him.

"It has been a source of pain through the years for me -- and for my brothers as well," she said from her home in Alabama. "We were blessed to have a stepfather who was a good man. But you always wonder what it would have been like if Dad had come home."

A native of Long Island, Robert Rausch was a navigator on a reconnaissance plane that was shot down near the Laotian border April 16, 1970. He was listed as missing in action and presumed to be a prisoner of war. His wife, Barbara -- whom he had met while they were attending Ohio Wesleyan University -- remained in her native Hamburg with their three children -- Michael, 10; David, 6; and Betsy, 2.

Three and a half years later, Rausch was declared legally dead by a court order, permitting his estate to be managed by Barbara Rausch.

By then, the Vietnam War had ended and the government had declared that "all POWs of the Vietnam conflict have been returned to the United States."

A few weeks after the court ruling, Barbara Rausch became Barbara Rackley. She married Maj. Robert Rackley, a decorated Army helicopter pilot who was stationed in Buffalo.

"I met him through some very wonderful veterans," she said by phone. "They urged him to escort me to a military ball. But we didn't go out again until the POWs came home."

Her husband wasn't among them.

The Rackleys moved to Fairfax, Va., when their new husband and father was promoted to lieutenant colonel and assigned to the Command Center of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in Washington, D.C.

The family returned to Western New York in 1977 and settled in Snyder. Rackley taught military science at Canisius College. The two boys attended the Park School, and Betsy went to Smallwood Elementary School. In 1980, Rackley retired, and the family moved to Johnson City, Tenn.

Then, in May 2003, Barbara Rackley became a widow again, when her second husband died of the effects of Agent Orange. Before they met, he served two tours of duty in Vietnam and earned a Silver Star for heroism.

Rackley was buried in Arlington, but Rausch, whose remains were never found, has no mention there.

"They have put my (first) husband, Maj. Rausch, in a 'no further pursuit' status," his widow said. "They are no longer looking for remains. They did that a year ago, which really had me very upset. But what can you do?"

What she is doing is trying to persuade the Air Force to place a memorial to Robert Rausch in Arlington.

"I deal through the Air Force," she said. "I still have a casualty officer."

There are others she may turn to for help. The Rausches' neighbors in Hamburg were Jack and Joanne Kemp, and they have kept in touch. Kemp was a Republican member of Congress and later was federal housing secretary before becoming Bob Dole's running mate in the 1996 presidential election.

During the 1970s, Barbara Rausch was co-chairman of the congressman's Service Academy Selection Board, as well as a board member of the National League of Families of American Prisoners & Missing in Southeast Asia.

Thirty-four years after the disappearance of their father, Betsy Gant lives in Huntsville, Ala., with her husband and two little girls; Michael works in Cincinnati for the Internal Revenue Service; and David works for a country club in Jacksonville Beach, Fla.

Barbara Rackley said she plans to encase the bracelet in acrylic for her grandchildren.

"Well, wonderful," said Sue Weisbeck. "I think they should have it. I'd be very happy to send it to them."

e-mail: acardinale@buffnews.com

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