US & World

Decades later, families still wait for remains of loved ones lost in war

A flag and flowers adorn one of the walls of memorial plaques at the Mount Soledad National War Memorial Monday July 3, 2006, in San Diego.
A flag and flowers adorn one of the walls of memorial plaques at the Mount Soledad National War Memorial Monday July 3, 2006, in San Diego.
LENNY IGNELZI/AP

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On a recent Saturday, the mood at the Marriott in Bellevue, Washington was lively — especially considering why people had gathered there.

From 7:30 in the morning until 5:00 in the evening, families packed into a ballroom to be briefed on what the federal government is doing to recover the remains their loved ones.   

Their relatives are among more than 80,000 service members the Pentagon lists as missing in action since the 1940s. The vast majority served in World War II, but Americans remain missing from virtually all the major wars, including Korea, Vietnam, and Iraq.  Other men are listed as missing from non-war related missions around the world.

At the Bellevue meeting, family members stood up one by one to remember those they’ve lost.

Marsha Welch spoke about her husband, Robert John Welch.

“He went down January 16, 1967," Welsh said. "I was 30 and he was a little over — almost 41 — when he went down.”

Families of service members still missing in action get an update about recovery efforts from the Pentagon.
Families of service members still missing in action get an update about recovery efforts from the Pentagon.
Patricia Murphy/American Homefront Project

The event is a chance for many to tell the story of their loved one to fresh ears.  Some like Welch, offer support and friendship to those who share a similar loss.   

“I live in Port Angeles," she told the others.  "I’d love to have you see his little mini farm that I bought for him 50 years ago. It’s a little tiny five acres, but it’s precious home sweet home."

"Hopefully someday he’ll be there,” Welch said.

The task of identifying service members remains falls to the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, part of the Defense Department.

Director Michael Linnington has only been on the job 10 months, but told the families he considers this the most important duty he’s ever had.

“Accounting for those that chose to serve our nation went to war and never came home is the ultimate responsibility," Linnington said.

For widows like Welch, who’s 80, there’s more hope than in the past. A simple cheek swab from a family member now can provide enough DNA to identify remains.

In 2015 the agency identified 72 service members’ remains. In 2007, only two were identified.

But there are hundreds more in boxes whose identities aren't known and many others that are still out there, especially in Southeast Asia. 

“In those areas, time has really, really not been on our side." Linnington said. "Putting those difficult cases together from the Vietnam War has always been a challenge."

Linnington was an Army officer for more than three decades. The warrior ethos about never leaving a fallen comrade drives him and many of his staff.

But ultimately, Linnington knows some families will never get the answers they seek.  

“Our mission is to provide the fullest possible accounting for our missing personnel to the families and our nation." he said. "We also know we’ll never really achieve full accounting for all of our missing personnel because many of them that are missing are in places that we know that they are unrecoverable.”

In addition, U.S. government secrecy can still get in the way of helping families determine what happened to their loved ones. 

Caroline Gill’s father, Tech Sergeant Melvin A. Holland, was sent to Laos in 1968. His family is still trying to learn what his mission was and what happened to him.  

“I know that right now, there is an effort out there to close my father's case and I ‘m begging you not to close my father's case,“ Gill said to Linnington at the meeting. "We’ve never given up; we expect our government to do the same.”

Few of the families in the Marriott ballroom seem ready to give up hope that  their loved ones will be found.  Which is a big part of the reason the agency holds events like this one. It’s an opportunity for families to ask questions and talk about their loved ones, and for the government to reaffirm its commitment to the missing.

This story was produced by the American Homefront Project -- a collaboration of North Carolina Public Radio-WUNC, Southern California Public Radio, and KUOW-Seattle.