For nearly four decades, he's been wearing a stainless steel bracelet etched with the name of an Air Force captain he never met.
"The deal was that you were supposed to wear it until they found them and brought them home," said C.W. Mustone, 52, of Wentzville.
POW/MIA bracelets like the one Mustone wears became popular in the 1970s during the Vietnam War, but today, Mustone says a lot of people don't recognize the simple band. When they do, they can't believe he's still wearing one for Capt. James Steadman, a pilot from Colorado who never returned from a mission on Nov. 26, 1971.
"I guess I'm just loyal," Mustone said.
Today, Mustone and others in the metro area and across the country will gather to remember the missing on National POW/MIA Day. Although the 1,713 service members still missing from the Vietnam War have gotten much of the public's attention, more than 85,000, including hundreds from Illinois and Missouri, remain unaccounted for from World War II through Afghanistan. About 100 of the missing are identified each year.
"As Americans we ask these young men and women to put on the uniform of our country and go to war for us, said Liz Flick, coordinator of the Midwest region for the National League of POW/MIA Families "We have a responsibility to them and their families that if something happens to them, we will bring them home."
Hundreds of thousands of people have purchased POW/MIA bracelets since a California student group started selling them for $2.50 in November 1970. The league picked up the sales in 1984, and it continues to sell the bracelets today — for $10. Other groups also sell the bracelets, but Flick said many are commercial enterprises, and the proceeds do nothing to help the POW/MIA issue.
"It just blows my mind when I get letter from a soldier asking for a bracelet of someone who's missing in Vietnam," she said. "I get calls in the middle of the night from bases around the world, and those are the ones that really hit home."
Flick said many of the people who wear them, though, are not in the military, like Mustone, who never served.
Mustone is not sure of the exact date he started wearing the bracelet, but he was about 15.
"A lot of kids at my school were concerned about the war, and I think I actually got it from my sister," he said.
He had to send away for a new bracelet when it cracked, and he lost it once while sledding but found it after the snow melted.
Mustone said that over the years, he has tried to do things to pay tribute to Steadman. For instance, he visited the traveling Vietnam memorial when it came to St. Charles County a few years ago. When 1st Lt. Michael J. Blassie, who was buried at the Tomb of the Unknowns, was identified and buried at Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery in 1998, Mustone was there.
"The funeral was pretty moving," he said.
Mustone said he has always wondered about Steadman but never tried to contact his family, out of fear that he might upset them. He needn't have worried.
Steadman's wife, Penelope, reached by a reporter at her Cañon City, Colo., home this week, described Mustone's actions as "an enormous act of kindness."
"It's a wonderful testament of loyalty to people who serve our country, and I'm deeply grateful to hear that he's done this," she said. "It's just so unusual for people today to care that much over such a long time."
Capt. Steadman's daughter, Karin Steadman, was just 4 when her dad was reported missing, and his son, Michael Steadman, was 6 months old.
"I remember the day they came and told my mom and just her crying and crying," said Karin Steadman, now 43. "I think the hardest thing for my mom and my grandmother and my dad's sisters was not having any answers."
Penelope Steadman said many questions remain about her husband's mission, which took place on a rainy Thanksgiving night near the North Vietnamese border.
"We all try to go on, but there's still this lingering, gaping chasm that never goes away," she said. "It's nice to know, though, that somebody else realizes this and is supportive."
Jim Mueller, 69, of O'Fallon, Mo., former commander in chief of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, has been wearing a POW/MIA bracelet since the late 1980s. Mueller has visited Vietnam three times since 2003 with the Joint Prisoners of War, Missing in Action Accounting Command, and he was present at two dig sites when remains were found.
"It makes me choke up in some ways, but there's closure there for the families," he said. "It means a lot to them."
Roger Dieckhaus, 59, of Wentzville, is a chaplain with St. Peters Chapter 458 of the Vietnam Veterans of America, and he said his interactions with POW/MIA families over the years are why he wears a specially made bracelet that includes the names of five soldiers.
"I've seen how hurtful this is to many of the families, and I wear it to honor them," he said.
Both will be attending events today. Mueller will be at the Cardinals pregame ceremony tonight at Busch Stadium, where the world's largest POW/MIA flag — 35 feet by 50 feet — will be on display and a former WWII prisoner of war will throw out the first pitch. Dieckhaus will attend O'Fallon's ceremony at 7 tonight at the Veterans Memorial Walk.
Mustone will be in O'Fallon too, thinking about Steadman.
"I'm still holding out hope that one day they'll find him," he said. "But I don't really want to hear that he's dead."