HONOLULU--I'm writing on the sixth floor of a Honolulu hotel, but my mind turns to Arkansas.
I think of Doug Chamberlain, who after graduating from John Brown University in Siloam Springs became a Marine officer and served in Vietnam. Doug saw much battle, but the title of his memoir, Bury Him, gets at his hardest experience: an incident involving the willful leaving behind of a young Marine who had been killed in action. Doug describes his discovery of the Marine's body, his anger that the Marine had been betrayed, his efforts not only to recover the body and to get it home, but also, decades later, to connect with the Marine's family.
And I think of Henry Donald Mitchell, who left Arkansas to fight the Germans but still hasn't returned. His fighter plane either crashed or was shot down over Austria in July 1944. Some months back, I spent time with Donald's brother in Fort Smith. Robert Mitchell has lived more than seven decades with the questions of what happened to his brother and where he is.
Donald Mitchell is one of more than 900 Arkansan service members deemed missing since the Second World War. I'm in Honolulu to learn about the organization devoted to finding them, the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA). When remains of U.S. combatants killed in the Korean War were handed over by North Korea two years ago, they came to the DPAA's laboratory at the Pearl Harbor-Hickam military base for identification.
It's been a split-screen week. On the one side is the sad spectacle of dysfunctional government encouraged by the 24-hour news channels. On the other side is the inspiring work of the DPAA, which pursues the leave-no-one-behind ideal with a doggedness matched by few if any other countries.
I have learned a lot from devoted and intelligent historians within the agency who study documents, photographs, maps and satellite imagery in an effort to locate where planes crashed or where warriors fell or were buried in makeshift graves. I heard an administrator who spoke eloquently of funerals arranged after the remains of long-lost loved ones have returned. I learned about the painstaking efforts of forensic experts working to identify remains. And I have been moved by the words of researchers who spoke at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Honolulu of the missing men whose remains they helped locate.
I said to myself, "I wish every American could hear this."
Then there was the anthropologist who spoke of a five-week search in Vietnam that led to the discovery of a tooth and a medallion--enough to positively identify the service member being sought.
Of course, a tooth and a medallion don't make a person. Considered literally, it's strange to say that the recovery of such items amounts to bringing someone home. But underpinning the DPAA's work is something profoundly psychological, even spiritual. The effort that goes into recovering whatever can be found demonstrates the depth of this country's commitment, rooted in principle, to finding the military's missing.
Small fragments take on great meaning.
Some 80,000 U.S. service members since World War II are unaccounted for. Of these, about 40,000 are deemed recoverable. (Most of the rest were lost at sea.) Inevitably, some waiting family members feel that the government isn't doing enough. The nagging questions--What happened to our loved ones? Where are they?--don't go away.
The public servants within the DPAA understand and feel the power of these questions. They also know that the ravages of time, the acidic soil of Vietnam, and resource limitations are against them.
But we can know that they are working carefully, diligently and devotedly to bring as many of our fallen home as possible.
Preston Jones teaches at John Brown University. Recorded discussions with Doug Chamberlain and Robert Mitchell are posted at the website War and Life: Discussions with Veterans (tinyurl.com/warandlife). The DPAA will host a meeting for POW/MIA family members in Little Rock in April.
Editorial on 03/06/2020