Hays vet compiles war dead database

HAYS — As a Korean War veteran, 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. Rather than learning more, he discovered that little was known.

That discovery led to a project that culminated in 2002 with the Coffelt Database.

Coffelt was honored by the Vietnam Veterans of America 939 in 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 him nodding consent.

Taking notes on yellow legal pads, he did research at the Hays Public Library and Forsyth Library at Fort Hays State University and amassed a sizable 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 condolence written to families.

It was necessary to get clearance to access the archives and hand copy the letters, Jennings said.

Some information existed identifying war dead at the division level, and Coffelt purchased those microfilms 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.

"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 as a team.

Together, they have compiled a database of more than 58,000 soldiers 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 Database.