The effort to identify the remains of missing American troops from past wars is very technical, involving anthropology, forensic analysis, and DNA. But behind it all are thousands of families that are sometimes eagerly waiting for news, and other times surprised that their long lost child, parent or spouse has been found. VOA's Al Pessin talked to officials at the U.S. military laboratory in Hawaii where the work is done, and where the families go to be reunited with the remains of their loved ones.
When the remains arrive here from distant battlefields they receive full military honors. And when they leave, they are often accompanied by a member of their family, perhaps a widow who lost her husband 35 years ago, perhaps a now-grown son or daughter who never met his or her father.
The remains, by now, are unrecognizable piles of bones, identified through highly technical scientific analysis. The center's deputy scientific director, Dr. Robert Mann, says although families can understand the basics of the science involved, it is sometimes something very unscientific that enables family members to really re-connect with their loved one.
"We have some things that really do kind of clinch it for a family member, such as the pencil sharpener, for one individual, who, once she saw the pencil sharpener that convinced her that we really had identified her dad. It was emotional for her because her dad used to write to her every day from the field and use a pencil. And he had to sharpen his pencil with his pencil sharpener. So a little old 15-, 20-cent pencil sharpener was the thing that really convinced her and made her feel good and comfortable that in fact they had found her dad," he said.
The senior advisor to the military command that searches for and identifies the missing, Johnie Webb, has been involved in the effort since 1975. He remembers another woman who came to Hawaii to collect the remains of her father. "She was two months old when he was shot down. So she had no memory of her father. And she relayed to me the story that she had been, all of her life, trying to get to know her father," he said.
Retrieving his bones did not help in that. But when the center announced that the man's remains had been identified, many of his former comrades got in touch with the family to express their condolences, men the daughter had never met. "And so she got to talk to many of the other pilots that flew with him, many of the others that served with him, listened to the war stories that they shared with her. And she said that for the first time, she felt like she really knew her father. And then, as she related, to be able to see her children and see any of the tendencies her children had that would remind her of the stories that she had heard about her dad," he said.
In his job, Johnie Webb meets with many family members who come to accompany remains to their final resting places. He remembers one Vietnam War widow who came to collect her husband's remains nearly 40 years after he had been shot down. "They had bought matching wedding bands, gold bands and each of them had five diamonds. And so she was convinced that he was wearing his wedding band, even though he wasn't supposed to do it. And when we did the recovery, we recovered that wedding band. It was tarnished. It was bent. But the five diamonds were still there. And when she came out to receive the remains, she wore her wedding band around her neck, and I was able to add her husband's wedding band on the chain that she had around her neck," he said.
Webb says the effort to identify the missing is also important to their former comrades-in-arms, who did make it home alive. "I have stood in a group of old veterans who lost a friend in battle and watched the tears flow down their eyes as they say, 'Thank you, I have lived with this guilt all these years that I could not get my buddy back. And now you have brought him back home,'" he said.
Webb says the worldwide effort to find and identify the remains of missing American servicemen and women is still important even after so many years. "As a Vietnam veteran, I think that had I not come back home, I would want somebody be trying and provide those answers to my wife and my children as to what happened to me," he said.
American military teams are working in Southeast Asia and elsewhere around the world to find the remains of the missing and send them to Hawaii for identification. The effort is made more difficult by the harsh jungle environment, by people who have taken remains and artifacts over the years, and sometimes by politics, which keeps teams away from old battlefields for many years.
But Johnie Webb says the effort will continue for the families and the veterans, and to demonstrate to today's troops that the U.S. military will not leave anyone behind on any battlefield, no matter how long it takes to bring them home.