Niceville woman reflects on loss of husband in Vietnam

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In November 1972, 1st Lt. Jack Harvey’s fighter jet disappeared over the mountainous jungle of South Vietnam. His body has never been found.

By Jim Thompson | 315-4445 | @Jimtnwfdn | jthompson@nwfdailynews.com

VILLA TASSO — In November 1972, 1st Lt. Jack Harvey’s fighter jet disappeared over the mountainous jungle of South Vietnam. His body has never been found.

His widow, and a daughter who never knew him, continue to cope with the loss. But they can now find some solace in knowing that his name soon will be inscribed on the Okaloosa County Veterans Memorial in Crestview.

Barbara Bell and Jack Harvey met in 1964 at Choctawhatchee High School and married a few years later. His only goal was to become a fighter pilot.  

The couple’s daughter, Kelly, was born in December 1971. But Jack Harvey would see his baby girl for just a few days during a 10-day leave from Vietnam in June 1972.

A little more than five months later, the F-4D Phantom fighter jet Harvey was piloting went down. Pieces of the aircraft have been found, but no trace of Harvey or passenger Capt. Bobby Jones have ever been located.

Barbara said neither she nor Jack realized how long the Vietnam War would last or that he would ever be sent overseas to fight in it.

“We certainly thought it would be over with,” she said Friday as she sat in her home near Villa Tasso going through scrapbooks and other mementoes of her life with Harvey.

She said she hounded military officials for information in the days after the crash. She got little information through official channels, but other airmen kept her posted.

In the meantime, reminders of her husband were arriving in the mail: His letters home and a doll he had bought his daughter as a Christmas gift.

“It’s an ugly doll,” Kelly Fernandez said Friday while sitting with her mother. Ugly or not, it remains among her and her mother’s most prized possessions.

Asked if she had ever reconciled herself to the circumstances that claimed her husband’s life, Barbara said, “I don’t know if you really 100 percent ever do. There’s just no dot at the end of the sentence.”

Fernandez bears a strong resemblance to her late father.  Her own feelings, she added, are colored by “knowing what I’ve missed out on” as she’s seen other daughters and fathers.

“You always have the thoughts of ‘What would your life be like?’ ” if her father had been able to help guide her to adulthood, she said.

Jack’s death created an immediate and deep bond between mother and daughter that continues to this day.

“She’s my savior, as much as I was her savior,” Fernandez said.

For 18 years after his death, Jack was listed as M.I.A. Finally, in 1980, the military changed his official status to deceased.

For many of those years, his widow advocated for information and closure.

At one point, she posted handbills across Fort Walton Beach featuring a photo of her husband under the headline “Where is Jack Harvey?”

“As concerned Americans, we must insist that all of these missing men be accounted for,” the handbill said.

The Department of Defense continues to contact Harvey occasionally with news about efforts to find out more about her husband’s fate.

About five years ago, military officials told her that some pieces of the aircraft had been found. The condition of the aircraft parts indicated the crash likely was not survivable, she said.

Search and recovery efforts have been complicated because the crash site is now part of a park, limiting the kinds of equipment that can be used to uncover information about the crash.

Barbara has taken other steps to come to grips with her husband’s death. Some years ago she took flying lessons in hopes of gaining some understanding of what her husband experienced at the controls of an airplane.

“He loved what he did,” she said.

Three years ago Barbara, her daughter and three grandchildren went to Washington, D.C., to see Jack’s name on the Vietnam Memorial.

“It was very emotional,” she said as she gazed at a photograph of her daughter rubbing an image of Harvey’s name from the memorial wall onto a piece of paper.

His name is already on a Veteran’s Memorial wall at Choctaw. Having it added to the wall in Crestview will be special for his wife and daughter.

It will, Fernandez said, “feel like the community has embraced him, and said, ‘Jack was part of us.’ “

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