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Richard Coffelt of Hays, Kansas was born in Kansas City, Missouri on August 6, 1932. He served in the United States Army from February, 1953 to January, 1955, leaving the Army with the rank of sergeant. While in the military, Richard was trained as an infantryman at Camp (now Fort) Polk, Louisiana and after basic training was sent to the Adjutant General (TAG) School at Fort Benjamin Harrison, Indiana for instruction in army administration. He completed his tour in the headquarters company of an infantry regiment.
Richard had attended the University of Kansas between 1950 and 1952 before entering the Army and returned after completing his enlistment. The University awarded him a Batchelor of Arts degree in Personnel Administration in 1957, and he was graduated from the University's School of Law in 1959.
After admission to the bar, Richard practiced law in Hays. He was appointed as the Prosecuting Attorney for the City of Hays Municipal Court (1962-1968) before practicing as a Defense Attorney (1968-1997). Between 1998-2002 he was an instructor in Business Law at Fort Hays State University, Hays, Kansas. He has also served on several State and Local Boards (the latter in Wamego and Hays), including the State Board of Veterinary Examiners and the Board of Directors for the Humane Society of the High Plains.
Richard married Jo Ann Jennings in 1979. He has two daughters, Gretchen (husband Ned), Houston, Texas; Christine, Portland, Oregon; and a son, Clayton (wife Nicole), Denver, Colorado. He also has five grandchildren.
Richard's efforts have been recognized as follows:
When I first learned of Richard Coffelt and the Coffelt Database I pictured the effort as under the leadership of a university professor back East working under a federal grant and assisted by a team of graduate students. I was quite surprised to learn that Richard Coffelt is a retired lawyer who resides in a small town in western Kansas and works out of the living room of his home.
It was a great pleasure to interview Mr. Coffelt a few years ago for a news article that I wrote for the Americal Journal magazine. I am grateful that I was able to hear his story first-hand. I learned of his endeavor to unite the efforts of a handful of others to fulfill an obligation to those who gave their lives in Vietnam.
It is all too common that when people find an unmet need they look to someone else to take action. Richard Coffelt determined that the "official" government Vietnam casualty database was incomplete and inaccurate. Instead of looking to others to resolve this problem he stood up and said, "I shall do it." After many years of tireless effort he gave the government and his fellow citizens a database that is unequaled in its completeness and accuracy. The Coffelt Database is now the authority on Vietnam casualties.
I shall only describe one of the many benefits of the Coffelt Database.
Often times the child or grandchild of a Vietnam casualty wishes to contact a veteran who served with their deceased family member. Prior to the Coffelt Database a search of this kind was often overwhelming. The official record listed casualties by unit at the division or brigade level. Coffelt's research expanded the casualty database to list the casualties at the company and battalion level. This effectively reduced the search for a veteran from magnitude of one in ten thousand to one in one hundred. It can be said that the Coffelt Database made the search at least one hundred times easier to conduct.
The Coffelt Database could have been published and sold to users. I know I would have purchased a copy. But it is not a product for sale. It is a gift to and for Vietnam veterans, their families, and all those who have interest in the true history of the Vietnam War.
I will forever be grateful to Richard Coffelt and his team for the accomplishements they have achieved. Thank you very much for all you have done and for what you continue to do.
Please extend my warmest regards to Richard and let me know if I may ever be of service to him and to the Coffelt Database team.
Gary L. Noller
It is hard to imagine the world for Vietnam veterans if there had not been a Coffelt database. Many of the victims of the combat were carted off and their buddies had to soldier on. In the field it was hard to tell rumor from fact. Years later the veterans were often left wondering if their wounded buddy had made it or not. With the advent of the Coffelt data base the name and the units were identified along with the date of incident. The buddy who went by "Slim" or "Doc" or "Hillbilly" didn't have a name that could be easily remembered. But the unit and the date of the incident this could be sorted out. At last the survivors of the battles could find peace in knowing what the outcome had been for their friend. The Coffelt data base is so good it is often taken for granted today. It took a lot to put it together. I am forever grateful.
Perhaps the finest accolade was written by someone who worked with Richard - Dick Arnold. It was read at a February 2011 ceremony when Chapter 939 of the Vietnam Veterans of America honored Richard's work on their behalf:
A TRIBUTE TO A GREAT AMERICANI first became acquainted with Richard Coffelt in 1998. I served with the 35th Infantry in Vietnam and we had just started to organize ourselves to discuss annual reunions and a web site. I was primarily interested in learning all I could regards our history, particularly our KIAs. At that time there was a bare minimum of such information available. Through the Vietnam email grapevine, I kept hearing about this retired lawyer out in a place called Hays, KS (and where in the heck was that anyways?) who had been working for years on the Vietnam KIAs and further, was willing to share that information.
So I was able to obtain Richard's email and sent him a message. I quickly received a very gracious reply that, yes Richard had some information on the 35th Infantry and would gladly work with whomever on the project. Though Richard would later learn what he needed in order to work with Excel and Word documents; at this time he did not have his information easily transferable via computer. So I took a deep breath and ask if he could possibly snail me what he had on the 35th? He replied, "I will start printing right now". I was to learn that such a reply was typical Richard. He was always willing to share what he had and never ask for a nickel in return ... not even for postage.
As I started working with Richard, I became curious as to how he became involved in such a project. He was a Korean-era veteran with no obvious connection to Vietnam; perhaps I thought he had lost a close family member or friend there? I was to learn what many would come to learn....getting Richard Coffelt to talk about his accomplishments was like pulling teeth!
However, slowly over a period of time he did divulge some information. Said he had become "curious" when the first Hays-area KIAs started coming home from Vietnam as to what unit they were with. Now remember, this was long before Al Gore invented the Internet. So Richard would do things like get reference books through the local intra- library program, and read the Congressional minutes for testimony from Congressmen concerning lost Vietnam soldiers from their districts. However, he was also willing to travel far afield in his quest. As an example he went to Washington D.C. to photograph the Ist Infantry Division Memorial as it contains Company-level information. He had the pictures enlarged from many different angles so all the information could be read.
I quickly became aware that I was working with a truly powerful intellect. Early on in our research Richard and I were discussing one soldier. At that time, all the official information we had to work with would typically just include province of loss and major unit, usually just division level. So I looked at what we had and could not understand how Richard could possibly be so sure of his full unit. Back came a cryptic,
And I thought, "Dick, son, you are in the Big Leagues now!"
I also became more and more impressed with Richard's overall Vietnam War knowledge. I have often exclaimed to fellow Vietnam veterans, "He knows more about the damn war then we do and he was not even there!"
During all this time he worked with me on the 35th Infantry, Richard was of course collaborating with other veterans concerning their particular unit's casualties. One such veteran had served with the 9th Infantry Division. Sometime around the year 2000, the three of us decided to attempt to extend our research to include all Vietnam KIAs. Using Richard's original research as a basis, we were also able to find previously unknown sources such as Presidential Letters of Condolence at the Johnson and Nixon Presidential libraries and Grave Registration records at Hickham AFB in Hawaii. Further, by this time the information to be found on the Internet had mushroomed such as several Virtual Walls and various unit web sites. Most importantly, when word spread of our project, we would acquire a true "Army" of helpers ... soldiers from various units, some of whom had begin to identify their own KIAs, who were very willing to help. Some of these guys remain treasured friends to this very day.
In June of 2002, we had completed most of our research and deeded a copy to the National Archives in Washington D.C. There was of course no question what we would call our contribution. To not name it "The Coffelt Database" was simply unthinkable. They had a very pleasant ceremony for us and it was nice to finally meet Richard in person there. It was calculated that we had spent about $20,000 of our own monies in the research. More properly, I suspect Richard spent the lion's share of that out of his own pocket.
From 2002, the Coffelt Database has continued to constantly upgrade its original research. The original team of three has now become a larger team of truly talented individuals who are dedicated to constant improvement. We have vastly improved our electronic information-sharing capability and have significantly added to our basic information. For instance we have added thousands of locations, usually specific map grids, many burial locations, and have detailed confirmation sources. We also along the way have corrected many "official" sources. Most importantly, in keeping true to our founder's original vision, we gladly share our information with any interested parties and never hesitate to correct mistakes when presented with convincing documentation. We envision the Coffelt Database as the ultimate source of information on Vietnam War casualties long after all of us are gone.
Until his current illness, Richard continued to be actively engaged in our research. Considering the relatively rough research tools he had to use, Richard's original work has proven very accurate. When a unit of his has been corrected, Richard has shown his true character. He never had an ego involving his "baby" and will gladly admit to being wrong. He is simply in it for the greater good.
I consider my participation in the creation and continued improvement of The Coffelt Database to be one of the proudest parts of my life. I also consider it a singular honor to have known and worked with Richard these last few years. All of us Vietnam veterans owe him a huge debt, we truly do. I wish I could have been there tonight in person to see him so rightfully and finally honored by his home town. In closing I wish to ask for a rousing hand salute for one of the true heroes of our war ... Richard Coffelt!
Left to right, Richard Coffelt, Dave Argabright, Dick Arnold ... June 2002
Jo Ann Jennings and Richard Coffelt
Richard Coffelt, 2011
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