Remains ofThe remains of 21 American servicemen, including those believed to be that of an Air Force pilot shot down during his second tour of duty in Vietnam in 1972, were returned to U.S. soil this morning.
21 MIAs return
to U.S. soil
Three sets were repatriated
in a Hanoi ceremony with Clinton
By Gregg K. Kakesako
The widow and daughter of Air Force Col. William Coltman were among those waiting when the C-5 Galaxy transport jet carrying 21 silver caskets, each draped with an American flag, landed at Hickam Air Force Base at 9:05 a.m.
The caskets were then escorted by a joint military honor guard to two blue military buses and taken to the U.S. Army Central Identification Laboratory at Hickam.
Coltman's remains are believed to be among those taken out of Laos and turned over to U.S. authorities on Oct. 30. However, it will be up to the laboratory to make a positive identification.
It was a "bittersweet" moment today for Maj. Kim Coltman, who watched with tears in her eyes as the caskets were taken off the plane, two at a time. Standing next to her was her mother, Gail Coltman. "I hope they are my father's remains," said Coltman, an Air Force nurse stationed at Mountain Home Air Base in Idaho, noting DNA testing still needs to be done.
She was only 12 when her father disappeared. "If they are not his remains, then I'm representing the other families to bring closure to this issue," Gail Coltman said. Despite the somberness of today's ceremony, it "does bring back beautiful memories," she said, referring to the first time her husband returned from Vietnam in 1968, at Ellis Air Force Base in Nevada.
Three sets of remains from Vietnam, repatriated Saturday at a ceremony at Noi Bai Airport in Hanoi attended by President Clinton, along with three recovered in Laos and 15 found in North Korea, will be turned over to the Central Identification Laboratory.
Gail Coltman recalled that her husband's call sign was "Wild Bill" and that he was only the third pilot at the time to rack up 1,000 miles in an F-111 jet. His F-111A crashed Sept. 29, 1972. The last radio contact with the plane was 10 miles southwest of Yen Bai in North Vietnam. There is no explanation as to how Coltman may have ended up in Laos.
Kim Coltman described her father, 40 when he disappeared, as a "jokester."
"We were a very close family," she recalled. The past 28 years have been "very frustrating," she said. "It's like a wound that never heals."
For 25 years, the family heard nothing to give them hope, Gail Coltman said. The family "had accepted the fact that he would never be brought back," Kim added, when, in 1998, reports began to surface that the military believed they had found his remains. The first reports proved false. But today, the family is looking for closure and hoping they will finally be able to bury Col. William Coltman at Arlington National Cemetery, where there already is a marker over an empty grave site.
Since the end of the Vietnam War in 1973, a total of 591 American servicemen, previously believed to missing in action, have been accounted for. Still missing are 1,992 American servicemen -- 1,498 in Vietnam, 421 in Laos, 65 in Cambodia and eight in China. There are about 8,100 servicemen still unaccounted for from the Korean War.