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For Vietnam's Missing, Hope of Accountability Remains

Karoni Forrester was 2 when her father, Marine Corps Capt. Ron Forrester, was shot down in an A6A Intruder over North Vietnam on Dec. 27, 1972. He and his pilot, Capt. Ralph Chipman, were both declared missing in action.  

Their cases remained that way for more than half a century until late last year, when their remains were finally identified.  

A service member holds a young child.
Marine Corps Capt. Ron Forrester
Marine Corps Capt. Ron Forrester holds his baby daughter, Karoni, before deploying to Vietnam. Forrester was declared missing in action after his aircraft was shot down in 1972. His remains were finally accounted for by the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency in 2023.
Photo By: Karoni Forrester
VIRIN: 240702-O-D0439-0037Y

"I got a text message from my casualty officer saying, 'Give me a call. I have something positive to report,'" a tearful Forrester remembered of the day she was notified. "I just knew, but I also thought, 'What?!?' My daughter was home, and my husband was working from home … so the three of us got to be together while we heard him say, 'We made a positive match.'" 

A person speaks in front of a large group of people in a banquet hall as another person stands at a podium in the background.
2024 Vietnam War Annual Government Briefing
A family member of a Vietnam service member listed as missing in action asks a question related to updates about their loved one during the 2024 Vietnam War Annual Government Briefing in Washington, June 27, 2024. The Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency provides periodic updates and hosts these meetings for families of missing personnel from past conflicts.
Photo By: Army Sgt. Edward Randolph
VIRIN: 240627-A-MC630-1027

That's the mission of the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency — to bring unaccounted service members home. Recently, the agency held its annual government briefing for Vietnam families in Washington, D.C., to update them on what the government is doing to bring their loved ones home.  

Since 1995, the Defense Department has conducted annual and periodic updates across the country for families; however, this is only the second year that the DPAA has hosted the event for Vietnam families all on its own.  

A person looks at a large display.
2024 Vietnam War Annual Government Briefing
The Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency hosts the 2024 Vietnam War Annual Government Briefing in Washington, June 27, 2024. DPAA provides periodic updates and hosts AGBs for families of missing personnel from past conflicts. These events include formal presentations, question and answer sessions and one-one-one discussions designed to keep family members informed of DPAA’s mission to account for those still missing while addressing their individual needs.
Photo By: Army Sgt. Edward Randolph
VIRIN: 240627-A-MC630-1003

Rob Goeke, the DPAA's chief of family support, said that anytime work is done on a particular service member's case, they'll send a finished report about that work to the family. The annual meetings are a chance for families to ask more in-depth questions during one-on-one sessions, as well as to hear from civilian and military experts to learn more about the complicated process.  

"I had my case summary reviewed this morning, and there were some findings," said John Kerr, whose older brother, Marine Corps Lance Cpl. Ernest Kerr Jr., was aboard a UH-34D Choctaw Medevac helicopter when it crashed into water in South Vietnam on March 26, 1968. "They've identified three large chunks of metal … they did that with sonar scanning. So, there's hope that, at some point, they'll be able to do further investigation and see if it actually is the helicopter." 

Some families have been proactively searching for their loved ones since they disappeared more than 50 years ago. But Goeke said a lot of first-time families showed up to this year's event.  

"We asked for a show of hands, and it was surprising how many first-time families were showing," Goeke said, later confirming that 56 attendees were first-timers. "They're picking up the mantle and they're running with it because they're not going to give up. … So, it's inspiring that they're carrying on for their mothers — their grandfathers in some cases — to bring back their loved ones." 

A person in a uniform and beret smiles for a photo.
Army Staff Sgt. Andrew T. Brassfield
Army Staff Sgt. Andrew T. Brassfield has been missing since April 6, 1970, when the Special Forces unit he was with inside Laos was attacked. Records show Brassfield was mortally wounded during the firefight, and despite his team’s best efforts, they had to leave his body behind.
Photo By: Army
VIRIN: 240702-A-D0439-072Y

Michael Brassfield and Stephanie Bentley were two of those first-time attendees. Brassfield's father, Army Staff Sgt. Andrew T. Brassfield, has been missing since April 6, 1970, when the Special Forces unit he was with inside Laos was attacked. Records show Brassfield was mortally wounded during the firefight, and despite his team's best efforts, they had to leave his body behind. Searches to locate him after the war were unsuccessful.  

Michael Brassfield said he was 9 when that happened. The government has kept his family updated on the mission to find his father since then, but it was only in recently years that he gained an interest in coming to the family updates to ask questions.  

"Even though it's been 50-some years, I feel that they're going to find something when they go in there. I've got a lot of hope that they're going to find something," said Brassfield, who's now 65. "They're on his case now. … We're going to be on it, and I know my niece is. She's been vocal."  

Eight service members in combat uniforms with rifles pose for a photo.
Vietnam War
Army Staff Sgt. Andrew T. Brassfield, pictured in the back right, poses with other elite commandos of the 5th Special Forces Group during their deployment to Vietnam. Brassfield has been listed as missing in action since April 6, 1970.
Photo By: Stephanie Bentley
VIRIN: 240702-O-D0439-0139Y

Bentley is that niece to whom he was referring. Since she picked up the search for her grandfather, she's learned from other families of the missing that it's important to stay on top of the DPAA and be persistent.  

"I do think that, because a lot of new technology has come onboard from 50-some years ago, there's going to be a lot more that's discovered because of it," she said.  

After 50+ Years, The Search Is Over 

For the first time in her 53 years of life, Forrester got to be one of the few attendees at this year's annual government briefing who could tout a success story instead of seeking answers.  

Forrester started questioning what happened to her dad as a teen. She went to a few regional family updates before attending her first annual government meeting when she was just 16.  

"From age 2 to 14, I felt really isolated. No one else had a dad that went to war and just didn't come home. So, it was a real game-changer for me to meet other families," said Forrester, who has attended nearly every annual government meeting since. "It helped me realize I wasn't totally alone." 

A person with a microphone stands to talk to a crowd of people seated at tables.
2024 Vietnam War Annual Government Briefing
Karoni Forrester, a POW/MIA family member, asks a question related to updates about missing service members during the 2024 Vietnam War Annual Government Briefing in Washington, June 27, 2024. The Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency provides periodic updates and hosts AGBs for families of missing personnel from past conflicts. Forrester’s father, Marine Corps Capt. Ron Forrester, went missing in Vietnam in 1972. His remains were accounted for in December 2023.
Photo By: Army Sgt. Edward Randolph
VIRIN: 240627-A-MC630-1024

Forrester has spent her life involved in not just her family's search, but the search for others.  

"It became about all of our missing for me," she said. "I wanted to find them all. So, we've celebrated every answer, and for a long time, I just said, 'It's not my family's turn yet.' And then it was, on December 5, 2023." 

After she got the call positively identifying her father, a DPAA team and the director of the Armed Forces DNA Identification Laboratory — which provides the DNA tests that support the identification of remains — explained the findings to her so she could understand exactly how they came to their conclusion.  

"I didn't know initially that I could request one of the scientists to come to the house when they did my ID review," she said. "I think that's something important for many families to know. You can request a scientist because the casualty officers can't speak to DNA." 

"I just wanted to make sure I knew what we were burying," she continued. "It's your one chance to get it right."  

A person in uniform poses for a photo.
Marine Corps Capt. Ron Forrester
Marine Corps Capt. Ron Forrester was listed as missing in action when his aircraft was shot down over Vietnam on Dec. 27, 1972. The Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency finally accounted for his remains in December 2023.
Photo By: Marine Corps
VIRIN: 240702-M-D0439-0116Y

Nearly 52 years after his death, on Oct. 7, Ron Forrester will finally be buried in Arlington National Cemetery. While it might be the end of his long saga, his daughter said she doesn't quite feel the closure that many thought she would. 

"I don't know that I believe in closure," Karoni Forrester said. "But the torment is gone. … There's this emotional torment about what happened to your loved one, and that's gone. It's so cool, and I want that for everybody."  

Marine Corps Capt. Ralph Chipman, who was declared missing alongside Ron Forrester after their fatal 1972 crash, was positively identified on Aug. 2, 2023. However, there are still 1,576 U.S. personnel unaccounted for from the Vietnam War.

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