28 Years of Anguish Subside; Pain Remains
By Rudi Williams
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, July 29, 1998 One Friday night in late May 1970 Donald Preiss was preparing for a night of fun when bearers of devastating news knocked on his door.
"My whole life changed from getting ready to go out with the guys to holding on to my mother as we spoke to two Army officers," said Preiss. "They had the uncomfortable task of being the messengers to deliver the news that Bobby was missing in action."
The officers told Preiss and his parents that Army Staff Sgt. Robert Preiss was missing in action May 12, 1970, while leading a six-man Special Forces reconnaissance team in Vietnam. Efforts to recover his body failed because of heavy enemy action and difficult terrain. Six days later, a recovery team was unable to locate Preiss' body. The team reported that a rockslide had covered the body with large boulders.
Preiss said about two months later, on July 18, the family received notice that Bobby had been killed.
Then after nearly 25 years of anguish and uncertainty, the Preiss family received a morsel of hope. In March 1995, joint U.S. and Lao teams began searching the area where Preiss was killed. On the fourth try, in February of this year, members of the Joint Task Force Full Accounting and the Central Identification Laboratory in Hawaii recovered human remains and personal effects they believed could be Preiss'.
"My brother was the only one killed within a 10-square-mile area," Donald Preiss said. "The Army contacted two guys in Atlanta who were with my brother in Laos the day he was killed. They questioned the guys about the kind of material they left behind and if it matched everything the military found."
The results of DNA testing, anthropological analysis of the remains and other evidence confirmed Robert Preiss' identity. DoD officials notified the family on June 8 of this year. After memorial services in Cornwall-on-the-Hudson, N.Y., the fallen soldier's remains were to be buried with military honors on Aug. 3 at Arlington (Va.) National Cemetery.
The family chose Arlington over the family's burial site because, Donald Preiss said, "my brother was big on soldiering -- a proud soldier, a very good soldier."
When DoD officials told Preiss that his brother's remains might have been found in Laos, he and his two sisters were "guardedly excited." But "we were worried," Preiss said.
Donald Preiss and his wife, Kathleen, live in Cornwall with their four children. His sister, Carole Fitzgerell, 57, lives in Inverness, Fla., and is a human resources manager for a chain of banks. His other sister, Susan Martin, 49, is a medical center administrator in Fishkill, N.Y., and has two children.
Myriad questions flooded their minds: "Is it really possible for them to get my brother's remains out? Could a monsoon wash them away before they could get them out? Are they really sure it's my brother's remains?"
"Our reactions to Bobby's death are the same," he said. "We all suffered through the last three-and-a-half years with great anxiety and hope. Preiss, 45, said his older brother was 25 when he was killed. "He would be 53 now," he noted.
He said the whole family has been saddened and in anguish since his brother's death. But, he said, "probably the biggest sadness is the fact that our mom and dad will never get to see his remains brought home for burial -- especially our mom. Mom passed away in April 1984 and Dad died in November 1996."
"Our mom never gave up on the thought that he could still be alive and that he would knock on the door some day," Preiss said. "This thought lasted for 14 years until her death. I personally watched my mother die of a broken heart. "
When people talk about war and casualties suffered, he said, "the numbers are much greater when you consider what happens to families of all the wounded or killed from both sides. Until you suffer through this experience you do not know about it.
"We think the work the Joint Task Force Full Accounting did was unbelievable," Preiss said, "and my family will never forget them.
"It has been very difficult dealing with the death of my brother. After all these years you heal a bit."