Families of Missing Find Comfort, New Information at Briefings
By Army Staff Sgt. Matthew Chlosta
Special to American Forces Press Service
BETHESDA, Md., April 8, 2009 More than 120 people whose family members never returned from military service gathered here recently for an update from officials of the Defense POW/Missing Personnel Office.
James P. McGarvey and his wife, Alice McGarvey, left, and Air Force Capt. Camille Carson, a research analyst with the Defense Prisoner of War/Missing Personnel Office, look over reports of how McGarvey's father, former Marine Corps pilot Lt. Col. James M. McGarvey, went missing during a bombing run off the northeastern coast of Vietnam, April 17, 1967. The McGarveys attended the office’s family outreach meeting in Bethesda, Md., March 28, 2009. U.S. Army photo by Staff Sgt. Matthew Chlosta
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
“A bright orange flash in the sky,” James P. McGarvey said as he described a pilot’s report of how his father, Marine Corps pilot Lt. Col. James M. McGarvey, went missing during a bombing run off the northeastern coast of Vietnam on April 17, 1967.
A pilot reported from eight miles away that he saw an orange flash, but he didn’t think it was an airplane, McGarvey said.
McGarvey and his wife, Alice, were among at least 122 people who gathered at a conference center here March 28 to take part in a Defense POW/Missing Personnel Office family update briefing. Their search for McGarvey’s father was among 71 cases represented: 32 from the Korean War, 19 from the Vietnam War, 17 from World War II and three from the Cold War.
The office conducts briefings for family members of Americans missing from the nation’s past conflicts near major U.S. metropolitan areas about eight times a year. Senior personnel from the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command, known as JPAC, are featured speakers.
“We have family update briefs to stay connected with the families so they know that the government is still interested in their cases,” Ambassador Charles Ray, deputy assistant secretary of defense for POW/Missing Personnel Affairs, said. “A second reason is [to have] a venue to tell not only the families, but [also] the wider public that we as a government keep our promise to our soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines that their sacrifices won’t be forgotten.”
“For JPAC, it keeps the families’ plight in our face,” Steve Thompson, the command’s external affairs officer, said. “A lot of family members come to every meeting.”
Families of servicemembers missing in Southeast Asia have been coming for years, and they know their cases well, Thompson said. But more and more attendees are relatives of Korean War MIAs, and a lot are first-timers, which Thompson said is an “indicator that more and more folks are learning about what we do.”
During the meetings, family members attend separate sessions tailored to the conflict in which their loved ones were lost.
“You know that time is our greatest enemy,” Johnie Webb, JPAC’s deputy to the commander for public relations and legislative affairs, said to the family members of MIAs from the Korean War. Webb updated the relatives on JPAC’s operations in their ongoing searches for MIAs and the challenges they face.
“Every day that passes, witnesses that could lead us to burial sites and crash sites are dying, sites are being scavenged, sites are being lost because of … land reformation [or] development. So time is our biggest enemy, without a doubt,” Webb said.
Later, during a Korean War brief, Webb cited examples of the extent that JPAC investigation teams went to in South Korea last year to get leads on missing Americans.
“Witnesses are important, especially in this type of warfare with a lot of ground losses,” Webb said. “Our investigation team went in and knocked on … door[s] to talk to 403 individuals. Out of those 403 individuals, 11 had information that might be related to American losses. As a result of that, three sites were added to our excavation list; that is, we believe Americans are there. We need to go excavate the site.”
In another Korean War mission, Webb said, a team talked to more than 1,700 people. Of those, team members believe 40 may have information about missing Americans. Two more excavation sites were added to the list because of those interviews, he said.
During breaks throughout the day, Armed Forces DNA Identification Laboratory personnel swabbed the inside of several attendees’ cheeks to get DNA family reference samples. Lab analysts can use the samples to match remains recovered in the future or current unidentified remains stored in JPAC’s lab. They also can use the DNA to exclude a person from group or comingled remains.
“This is really the whole thing that makes the IDs for us,” Chris Johnson, a DNA analyst, said. “Without these family reference samples, we have nothing else in these situations, sometimes, to make an ID for these families.”
One family member who had her cheek swabbed, Amy L. Goyne, said she found the meeting “very comforting.” Goyne is the daughter of Air Force pilot Capt. John S. Walmsley Jr., a Medal of Honor recipient, who was killed during a mission over North Korea during the Korean War.
“They’re very informative, and they make you feel like you’re important, Goyne said. “It makes you feel like you’re part of a family, because that door is still open.”
Goyne said she attended to find out what progress is being made on her father’s case, which has been limited because JPAC is not currently allowed into North Korea.
“It is truly a global mission,” Webb said, during his World War II family update. “We travel all over the world doing this.”
JPAC has conducted or planned for 39 recovery missions, 13 investigation missions and three underwater investigation missions in the fiscal year that runs through September. JPAC identifies about 70 MIAs per year.
Sometimes people think that the U.S. government doesn’t care, Alice McGarvey said. “I think today shows that is far from the truth. You can hear the sincerity in [the speakers’] voices.”
McGarvey was 6 years old when his father’s plane went down.
“I remember him,” he said. “I can remember how he was towards my sisters. He was just goofy. I thought about [how] we would bury him and then [we’d have] someplace to take our kids and say, ‘This is your grandfather.’”
“You just don’t forget,” Alice McGarvey said.
The McGarveys said they’re going to review the information they were given, formulate more questions, and attend the annual DPMO Southeast Asia Government Brief scheduled to be held in Washington, D.C., in July.
Tears streamed down Alice McGarvey’s face as her husband explained why it is so important to him that his father’s remains are returned home.
“Just to know he is back where he should be, it would give final closure,” McGarvey said.
(Army Staff Sgt. Matthew Chlosta serves in the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command public affairs office.)