Street Stories

Vietnam hero's story revealed to family in recovered citation

EXETER, R.I. (WPRI) -- James E. Goff Jr. never wavered when he was drafted to serve in Vietnam.

He went to war when he was 20 years old, leaving his nine siblings behind in North Providence, along with his parents who had both served in World War II.

His younger sister, Mary Hunt Lee, recalls he left what he saw and survived behind in Vietnam, returning to Rhode Island with wounds no one could see.

"He didn't want to talk about it," she said.

His oldest sister, Ellen Burns, remembers watching the news every night with their mother, and tracking the danger for the 14 months her brother was "in country."

"We couldn't tell exactly where he was," Burns said. "But we were looking for the battles. Is it near Jimmy? We'd get out a map, and try to figure it out."

They stayed close to him with letters and care packages mailed away to a place they knew little about.

Goff's younger brother, Robert, said he was skeptical the mail would even make it there.

"I remember my mom baking brownies for him in the care packages," he said. "And I was surprised he got my letters."

A tape-recorded Thanksgiving message let the Goff's know he was okay.

"My father is Mr. James E. Goff Sr.," Jimmy said in the recording. "I want to wish him and the rest of my family a happy Thanksgiving."

Then, on a cold January day, they got the scare of their lives with a knock on the front door.

Telegrams were known to bring horrible news, but it was bad enough.

"He received a wound to his right shoulder," the Telegram read.

When Goff finally came home, he just wasn't the same -- and neither was Rhode Island.

"When he came back off the bus, there were rocks thrown at him," Lee recalled. "There was name calling."

Robert remembers learning not to ask questions about the war.

"Over a period of time, we just realized not to talk about it unless he did," he said.

Lee was his primary caretaker "when he became very sick."

"Many times he'd say to me, 'today is not the day,'" she said.

"The day" did eventually come about two years after Jimmy was finally at peace.

Earlier this year, in a pile of old magazines in the corner of a work shop in The Terraces apartments in Cranston, Joe Fernandes found an Air Medal citation with Goff's name on it.

"He sacrificed for us," Fernandes said, after coming forward to hopefully find the soldier's family.

Lee saw the story on WPRI 12 last month.

"I was shocked," she said. "I couldn't believe it."

The citation told the family what their brother never could.

He survived more than 25 missions with the Army Air Cavalry -- over, through and into the heart of the war.

"He couldn't find a way to share it with us," Hunt said. "But now we know a little about what he went through there."

The document offers only a few details, but indicates he dealt with life and death situations on a regular basis.

"We were shocked," Burns said, when asked what it was like to discover he flew 25 missions in about nine months. "He never discussed it, never said a word about over there."

"And why he didn't want to talk about it?" his brother pointed out. "It was something he didn't want to remember. I can understand that."

Lee met up with Fernandes and thanked him for saving the citation. She is convinced it is not a coincidence he found it and decided to look for it's rightful home instead of pitching it in the trash.

"Yes, 100 percent," Lee said. "I feel [Jimmy is] with us today. I think he's telling a story. The story is finally coming together. I think that's what he would've wanted."

Email Walt at with you story ideas and follow us on Twitter: @StreetStories12 and @wbuteau.

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