Funeral Highlights Search for Missing Servicemembers
By Ian Graham
Special to American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Nov. 18, 2009 The leaves are changing color at Arlington National Cemetery – a bright backdrop for something as sobering as a funeral. An Army chaplain in his dress blues presents a folded flag to the fallen’s next of kin, a man who looks to be in his 40s.
This is not a father mourning the loss of his son, though. Rather, it’s a son finally receiving closure after his father went missing in the South Pacific decades ago. Funeral services like this, identical in form and location to the ones performed for the fallen from Iraq and Afghanistan, bring to light the ongoing search the Defense Department has undertaken to make sure every servicemember who goes abroad comes home.
“We’re not looking for a name on a piece of paper, we’re looking for our fathers, uncles, and brothers,” said Army Lt. Col. Eric Wolf, chief of the Past Conflict Repatriations Branch of the Army’s Casualty and Mortuary Affairs Operations Center.
Wolf’s office oversees the Army’s effort to locate and identify the remains of every missing soldier. Forensic evidence, genealogy and old-fashioned detective work are all a part of the process, which sometimes begins in the unlikeliest of circumstances.
Wolf described one story that began with a scuba expedition. The divers found the wreckage of a B-26 that had gone down in 1942 off the coast of Palau. After a string of phone calls to different groups and agencies that dealt with military wreckage, the Joint Prisoners of War/Missing in Action Accounting Command, or JPAC, became involved.
The JPAC, based in Honolulu, conducted a full archaeological dig, 70 feet under water, gathering human remains and other artifacts from the wreckage. Some research gave them the names of the men who were aboard the plane.
“It’s then we get to make the phone call, to this family who’s known their father and husband have been missing, to tell them ‘We think we’ve found your father,’” Wolf said.
Wolf’s office then works with the family to get any information it might need to positively identify remains, whether it’s something forensic like a blood sample or dental records or photographs and anecdotal evidence, such as artifact identification.
In the case of the Palau wreckage, Wolf found the family, then living in Texas, and got to brief them on how their father was found and what the Army would be able to do for them as the family of a deceased servicemember.
Sometimes a search is quick, and remains can be easily identified because of artifacts such as identification tags or dental remains that are easy to research and compare. But some cases have been in the works for more than 10 years.
Wolf’s office stays in contact with the families it works with as it investigates, sharing information to put the pieces together, even if it takes waiting for new technology such as mitochondrial DNA testing to develop before conclusive results can be found. Once those results are found, he said, the length of the wait seems trivial.
“It’s the most rewarding and fulfilling mission I’ve had in my 26 years in the Army,” he said. “It’s heartwarming to know, as a soldier myself, that no matter where I am in the world, or what I’m doing, I have the confidence and knowledge that, should I perish or go missing, the military and our government will never stop looking for me. Every soldier, sailor, airman and Marine has a long trail of family and the nation behind them.”
Once they remains are identified and returned to the family, they can be buried with the honors given to any current servicemember – in today’s case, a caisson and honor guard from the Army’s Old Guard and music by the Army Band helped bring to an end the mystery surrounding the disappearance of the crew of “The Happy Legend,” a B-25 that went missing Dec. 5, 1942, near Papua, New Guinea.
For Wolf, it means seven fewer people on the ever-shrinking list of soldiers unaccounted for, and a return to the continuing pursuit of soldiers still missing.
“It may sound cliché -- I know it does -- but they are never forgotten,” he said. “We will never forget. We’re going to keep searching until we bring every one of our brothers home from the battlefield.”
(Ian Graham works in the Defense Media Activity’s emerging media directorate.)