A tour of duty,A quarter of a century has passed since the end of the Vietnam War, but the search for those lost in the conflict that split a nation continues.
repatriation of remains
-- and mourning
The remains of seven U.S.Special section: Bringing them home
soldiers are coming home from
Southeast Asia, but many
more are missing
By Gregg K. Kakesako
This weekend, after recognizing America's military veterans at the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington National Cemetery, Bill Clinton will leave for Southeast Asia, probably on his last visit there as president. The trip will make him the first U.S. president to visit Vietnam since Richard Nixon in 1969.
Clinton follows Defense Secretary William Cohen, who visited the communist country in March and inspected a site 30 miles south of Hanoi, in Ha Tay province, where a massive excavation turned up the wreckage of an American plane and the remains of Lt. Cmdr. Richard Rich.
BRINGING THEM HOME
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Rich, an F-4B Phantom pilot, was shot down by a missile on May 19, 1967. His remains were brought home in April and he was buried at Arlington on Sept. 15, during an annual salute to POWs and MIAs.
Besides visiting a crash site in Vietnam, which is being excavated for the remains of another U.S. pilot, Clinton will participate in the repatriation of seven sets of remains of U.S. servicemen killed in Southeast Asia. Also attending the Nov. 18 ceremony in Hanoi will be his daughter, Chelsea, and his wife, New York Sen.-elect Hillary Clinton.
Human remains recovered in Vietnam and Laos, along with 15 sets of remains believed to be those of U.S. soldiers killed during the Korean War in North Korea, will be turned over to the U.S. Army Central Identification Laboratory in Honolulu on Nov. 20.
Of the nearly 8,100 U.S. servicemen listed as missing in the Korean War, it is believed that only around half can ever be recovered. About 1,200 remains are believed to be at former POW camps near the Yalu River on North Korea's northwestern border with China, and about 1,500 are thought to be in the vicinity of the Chongchon River, north of Pyongyang, which was the focus of this year's excavation effort.
So far this year, joint U.S.-North Korean teams set up to recover human remains have been to five battlefields and uncovered 65 sets of bones -- the largest number recovered in North Korea in any year since the recovery work began in 1996.
Following the end of the Vietnam War, there was intense political pressure to account for 2,583 missing servicemen. That led to the creation of Joint Task Force-Full Accounting in 1992 by the Pacific Command at Camp Smith in Hawaii.
While the mission of the Central Identification Laboratory at Hickam Air Force Base is to account for servicemen in all conflicts since World War II, the task of the joint task force is to focus on Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam.
No woman in uniform was ever killed and not returned during the war, according to Maj. Rene Stockwell, task force spokeswoman. However, among 39 missing civilians are two female missionaries, as well as journalists, contractors and intelligence specialists.
Since the task force was established eight years ago, it has been able to identify 591 Americans, Stockwell said. Still missing are 1,992 servicemen -- 1,498 in Vietnam, 421 in Laos, 65 in Cambodia and eight in China.
The task force's staff consists of 161 investigators, analysts, linguists and other specialists from all four service branches. It currently conducts 10 field operations annually: four in Vietnam, five in Laos and one in Cambodia.
The Central Identification Laboratory is mainly an Army operation and is staffed by civilian scientists.
Vietnam War recovery operations are conducted jointly by the two groups. However, once the remains are returned to U.S. soil, it's up to the Army Central Identification Laboratory to make the final determination and identification.
Of 2,583 cases investigated, 23 percent have resulted so far in a final determination, Stockwell said.
Although 25 percent of the cases are labeled as "not recoverable," she said, "we don't want people to think we have given up."
However, it may be impossible to recover the remains of a soldier killed by a major explosion in a foxhole, for example, or a pilot killed in a jet crash.
Most of the missing are air losses, Stockwell said.
About 17 percent of the cases are described as "pending."
In those cases, "The trail has gone cold and the matter will be turned over to the host country for further investigation," Stockwell said.
Additionally, in 11 percent of the cases, a recovery mission may seem like "a good idea and we are just waiting to go in," she said.
Although there have been numerous reports of U.S. servicemen still living in Southeast Asia, Stockwell said intelligence organizations either have resolved them as accounted-for personnel or discounted them as fabrications.
"Not since the release of 591 American prisoners of war during 'Operation Homecoming' in 1973 has an American, whose fate was unknown to the U.S., returned alive from Southeast Asia."
Since 1973, the remains of 591 American servicemen, formerly listed as unaccounted for, have been identified and returned to their families. Currently, there are 1,992 Americans still unaccounted for from the war in Southeast Asia, 1,498 of them in Vietnam.
Joint Task Force
-- Full Accounting
Established: January 1992
Mission: To conduct field operations to achieve the fullest accounting of Americans still unaccounted for in Southeast Asia.
Headquarters: Camp Smith
Detachments: Bangkok, Vientiane and Hanoi