Hays A Korean War veteran himself, Richard Coffelt thought Vietnam War veterans received little or no respect when they came home.
With particular interest in local veterans and those who died in the war, Coffelt, a Hays attorney, began reading to learn more about them, such as their company and unit.
Rather than learning more, he discovered that little was known.
That discovery led to a lifelong project that culminated in 2002 with the Coffelt Data Base.
Coffelt was honored by the Vietnam Veterans of America 939, Hays, recently and presented a plaque in recognition of his work.
He began in the 1980s by looking for a book, listing names of those who died in the War, said JoAnn Jennings, Coffelt’s wife.
Because of illness, Coffelt often finds speech difficult, so Jennings speaks for him with his nodding consent.
Taking notes on yellow legal pads, he researched in the Hays Public Library and Forsyth Library at Fort Hays State University and amassed a sizeable personal library of books on the war.
For many years, the couple’s vacations were research trips to the National Archives in Washington and Lyndon Baines Johnson Presidential Library where Coffelt researched letters of condolences written to families.
It was necessary to get clearance to access the archives and hand copy the letters, Jennings said.
Coffelt hired a graduate assistant to continue the work after he returned home, she said.
Some information existed identifying war dead at the division level, and Coffelt purchased those microfilm and printouts.
However, after about 10 years searching for a definitive source of names and unit identification, he realized there was none and began creating one. He continued reading books, borrowing material through interlibrary loan, using grave-marker applications and traveling to Washington and Austin, Texas.
“I was a teacher, so we spent every spring break in the Johnson Library Archives,” Jennings said.
Using these research tools, Coffelt was able to piece together the information he sought. The Internet was the turning point for the project, and Coffelt transferred his information to a computer document.
As word of what he was doing got out, he was contacted by relatives and former military personnel for information about friends and relatives. He always responded and directed the person to sources when he could.
Eventually Coffelt learned of two others, Richard Arnold and David Argabright, doing similar research. The three began working together as a team.
Together, they have compiled a database of more than 58,000 who died in the Vietnam War with more than a million pieces of data.
The database was deeded to the National Archives in a dedication ceremony in June 2002. In honor of Coffelt’s contribution, it was named the Coffelt Data Base.
However, Coffelt made one stipulation, that it cost no one to access it, Jennings said.