Program works to bring home remains of service members killed in wars

Hundreds of people gathered at a hotel in the Piedmont Triad and there was nothing more important than the dozens who weren’t there.

It was a meeting that the Department of Defense does each month for families who are missing one of their own, either killed in action and not recovered, or simply missing during battle in one of America’s wars.

Ray and Alan McPherson’s brother, Everett, was shot down on March 18, 1966, near the border of Laos and North Vietnam.

“His remains have not been recovered,” Ray said. “This is my brother Alan's and my third visit at one of these conferences at which we continue to hold out hope that his remains will be recovered.”

Alan McPherson was just 18 when his brother was killed.

“The time from that first notification to this day that I'm standing here, is a tough time, every single day,” Alan said.

But the meeting and, more importantly, the actions of the government that the meetings lay out are key for families like the McPhersons to keep their hope alive.

“When we hear the stories from the perspective of the family of these missing service members, it just strengthens our resolve to try to find them," said John Byrd, who helped organize and run the meeting.

Wendy Coble, who specialized in anthropology while getting her undergraduate degree from UNC-Greensboro and went on to get her master’s in maritime history and underwater archaeology from East Carolina University, does much of the field work looking for and then identifying remains of soldiers.

“People ask, 'Is this hard to do, is this morbid?' And it was then for me because, in that particular situation, this person had been probably murdered and buried in a field and we couldn't do anything about it. I said, 'I can’t do this, I can't do this!'” Coble said. “But to use my skills to bring somebody an answer, to tell them, 'No, your son was not tortured, he was not taken prisoner, he died instantly.' And that sounds kind of bad but to the family it's like …” Wendy sighs, “'OK and I know he's still not wandering around and I know he's not lost and now we get to bring him home.' It means so much to those families just to have the answers.”

In very early wars, like the Civil War, it’s nearly impossible to identify remains. But Coble says when we get past the mid-20th century, it opens up.

“You would be surprised. There's skeletal remains - usually, that's what we are looking for - we are looking for some of the things like teeth which will last a lot longer than some of the other things do and teeth have good DNA potential. We have 3 percent of the missing from World War II, whereas from Vietnam and Korea we have almost all the DNA, so it’s easier for us to match them.”

See more on the program in this edition of the Buckley Report.

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