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He served his country as well as his family

John Merritt was honored for his service in Vietnam, where he married a Vietnamese woman, adopted her children and then moved the family to Florida.

By JAY CRIDLIN
© St. Petersburg Times
published June 21, 2002


PORT TAMPA -- John Lewis Merritt received two Bronze Stars for his service in Vietnam, but he faced his toughest battle when he returned home.

After marrying a Vietnamese woman and adopting her children, Merritt moved his new family back to the United States.

He drove 3 1/2 hours to work each day to support them in an unfamiliar culture.

Merritt, a longtime air traffic controller and the owner of Kim-My Cloth Shop on Henderson Boulevard, died June 14 at the age of 65.

"He was very well-loved and well-known, and we all miss him," said Merritt's daughter, Kim N. Merritt. "He's in a better place."

Merritt was honored by both the Vietnamese and American governments for his "exemplary leadership, personal endeavor and devotion to duty," according to the citation for his first Bronze Star.

"I saw how he was wanting to serve, and how important he was, and the lives that he saved as an air traffic controller," said Merritt's son Peter.

Born in Lundale, W.V., Merritt moved with his parents to Melbourne in the 1960s. In 1971, he went to Vietnam as an air traffic controller and met his friend, Charles J. Hay II, a traffic management officer.

The two remained close throughout their lives. Hay described Merritt as "very gregarious, friendly, outgoing, helpful to anybody that needed help. A wonderful, loving father and family man."

Just a day after his return from Vietnam, though, Merritt was handed a stack of divorce papers by his wife, who left with their twin children.

"He didn't get a warm welcome from her," daughter Kim said. "She had no intention of staying with my dad. He was heartbroken."

A few months later, he signed up for another tour of duty. His orders were to go to Germany, but he switched papers with another soldier at the last minute and went back to Vietnam.

It was on this second trip that he met his future wife, Kim. "They were destined to be together," his daughter said.

The two married and had a son, Van. Merritt adopted Kim's other four children.

Back home, he was stationed at MacDill Air Force Base.

Base housing was unavailable at the time, so Merritt and his family lived with his mother in Melbourne. Every day for six months, he would commute 31/2 hours to work.

"Times were tough," Peter said. "He would travel back and forth because of his duty with the Air Force, but he didn't want us to feel left behind."

Peter said the family often felt like outcasts in their new society, unable to speak English, but Merritt did what he could to make them comfortable.

In the 1980s, he opened a cloth and alterations store. Kim-My Cloth Store has since become a popular South Tampa business. In 1994, Merritt helped his family open another venture, Nail Elegance on Henderson Boulevard.

He retired after 22 years in the Air Force as a tech sergeant, but continued working at MacDill for 19 more years as a civilian.

His family ultimately found a home in Port Tampa.

"He tried to do the right thing at all times," said Peter, who is now an Air Force Tech sergeant like his father. "He molded me. He really set good examples, and I want to be just like him. I want to follow him and pay back and serve my country and do the right thing."

Merritt's survivors include his wife, Kim A. Merritt; his sons, Kenneth, Peter and Van; his daughters, Linda, Kim N., My Dung and My Lien; a brother, Tom; his sisters, Lois Farley, Mary Lautzenheiser, Dora Sabo, Ann Gascon and Dinah Childers; and 11 grandchildren.

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