Family of Missing Serviceman Copes With Lack of Closure
By Rudi Williams
American Forces Press Service
ARLINGTON, Va., Jun. 20, 2005 The Defense Department annually briefs families of servicemen still missing in Southeast Asia, and in their quest for closure, mother and daughter Jeanette Lilly, 79, and Susan J. Harvey, 58, haven't missed a meeting in more than 15 years.
Jeanette Lilly (left) and her daughter, Susan J. Harvey, pose with the Defense Department's 2005 POW/MIA Recognition Day poster during annual government briefings in Arlington, Va. Lilly's son and Harvey's brother, Army 1st Lt. Lawrence E. Lilly, was shot down over Cambodia on March 17, 1971. Photo by Rudi Williams
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
Every time they come to Washington for the latest information, they learn something new, which inches them a little closer to closure toward accounting for Lilly's son and Harvey's brother, Army 1st Lt. Lawrence E. Lilly.
When he was shot down on March 17, 1971, Lilly was a member of Troop A, 1st Squadron, 9th Cavalry, 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile), flying as co-pilot of a Cobra helicopter gunship on a secret visual-reconnaissance mission over Cambodia.
The military report of the incident states that as the aircraft was near a landing zone, it was hit by enemy fire and forced to the ground deep inside Cambodia in the Snuol District of Kracheh province, near Seang village. The pilot, Capt. David P. Schweitzer, was rescued, but heavy enemy fire forced the rescue helicopter to leave the area before Lilly could be extracted.
Lilly, who was 26 years old, was last seen by U.S. personnel lying on his back with his shirt partially open and blood on his chest and neck. He was being fired on by Viet Cong forces, according to the report.
Harvey said that initially the military reported her brother missing but didn't say anything about him being shot down and wounded.
"He was just missing," Harvey noted. "My mom and dad lived in Ventura, Calif., then, and the newspaper there published a three-line notice saying he was missing -- that's all we knew.
"About five months later, in August, we found out that he had been shot down, wounded and a rescue helicopter came in and managed to save the pilot," said Harvey, a civilian employee in the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army for Manpower and Reserve Affairs in Arlington. "But enemy fire was so heavy that my brother wasn't able to reach the helicopter. The helicopter had to pull out because two or three of the rescuers had been hit by enemy fire.
"My initial reaction was a tremendous amount of hope," said Harvey, the daughter of a retired Air Force colonel and pilot who flew missions during World War II, the Berlin Airlift, Korean War and Vietnam War. Her father, Bobby Lilly, 80, hasn't attended the briefings for the past five years because of health problems.
"We managed to always live with the hope that we would hear something more, receive the remains or something. We were eventually told that he died of his wounds. The South Vietnamese troops reached him and cared for him until they had another tremendous battle and most of them and our son were wiped out by the Viet Cong," Jeanette Lilly, of Gambrills, Md., said.
Before her brother was killed, he was trying to evade a group of soldiers he thought were the enemy, Harvey said. "South Vietnamese soldiers were trying to reach him, but he didn't know that they were our allies," Susan said. "An American captain in a helicopter radioed down my brother's name to the South Vietnamese soldiers so they could call out his name so he would stop evading. They administered medical care, but he still didn't make it."
A resident of Alexandria, Va., Harvey said she and her mother attend the government briefings every year to listen to the stories of others and to stay close to people in the same situation.
"For example," she said, "last May, a joint recovery team went back to that site in Cambodia and talked to a farmer who possibility may have seen something during the episode. To us, that's a reach back where they can actually talk to someone who might not have been present during the battle, but saw things afterwards. So, by those interviews, it brings us closer to closure. And we know that he isn't forgotten and people are still working to find something.
"Every year we come, and we learn more by reviewing the records," said Harvey. "Initially, my mom and dad received a small piece of paper stating that he was missing. They didn't know anything else until about 15 years ago when we came across an Army office and was invited to come in and look at records. We said, no, we have our little record, the newspaper clipping and a document that the casualty office provided my mom and dad."
They kept declining the offer, but the casualty officers finally convinced them to take a look at the records. "We went in and were absolutely appalled that there were actual eyewitness accounts -- the South Vietnamese commander's account, the pilot's account, the rescue helicopter's account of what they saw," Harvey said. "The record was shocking, pretty rough to look at because it had everything, his dental records, medical history and even his awards.
"After years and years and years of just a void, we were just shocked," she said. "So since that time, for the last 15 years, we've come back and they've added to his record every time."
Lilly touched the large case file on the table and said, "That record was about an inch high the first time. Now, it's like four inches high. All the information they've gathered is unreal. So we're now getting the story and the facts of what happened to him. We had nothing in the beginning."
Harvey interjected, "It's really compelling because it's real. What's significant is the military is still looking."
She said another compelling thing happened to her and her mother because of their attendance at these briefings. "My mom didn't talk to any of the soldiers my brother served with in Vietnam," Harvey noted "That, too, had been a void. It wasn't convenient, we were at war and there wasn't really any communications. So we were not in communications with the people he served with."
That was until about two years ago, when a soldier from her brother's unit in Vietnam tracked his name on the Internet and called her parents.
"The soldiers invited my parents to a reunion at a camp in White Fish, Mont.," Harvey noted. "These were guys who knew my brother's story and told accounts of the story. They even had a video of him smiling, laughing; it was really something."
"They gave me a group picture consisting of a bunch of small pictures of all the things they were doing over there," Lilly said.
The aging Vietnam veterans also showed her their Stetson cavalry hat and explained its symbolism.
"There was a lot of camaraderie in their unit, so when something happened to one of them, they never forgot," Harvey said. "These grown men in their 50s and 60s got together and it was quite something."
"I accepted it as a memorial to Larry because all of the events were about him," Lilly noted. "They called him the kid; we didn't know that. And everybody there knew him quite well and they mourned him, just as we have. Even on Memorial Day and March 17, the day he was killed, they call. They each had their own separate account of what occurred."
Harvey didn't attend the reunion, but her sister, Donna Gargas, of Severna, Md., was there. "These people were so respectful," Harvey said. "But my mom helped console them because they'd grieved -- a total private grief. They never got together to discuss this, but their recollections were so crystal clear of what he was like, what he liked."
"For me, it's a closing, in a sense," Lilly said. "For instance, this morning, we were talking to a lady who said a search team went into Vietnam on May 4 and found remains of three missing servicemen. They also found information about another site near there with remains of two more people. Her son is supposed to be in this group. She is so excited because she's expecting information any day. This is what we've had over the years. We've come, and we'll hear this constantly. This is good information and gives you a very good feeling for these people."
Lilly said it's heartening to meet other families to share stories with every year during the briefings. "It was like the vets reunion in Montana, they were sharing all the things that happened with them and with Larry," she said.
Harvey said that after 35 years her brother doesn't have any presence in her everyday life. "So you come here and talk to people and they don't have the presence either. But it's an opportunity to talk to them and bring it into the moment with people who are interested, including the government folks," she said. "It just gives a forum to learn, share and to listen."