Thursday, February 14, 2008

Families of POWs, MIAs wait for info

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Published on: 02/10/08

Kerry Rogers remembers his father — a dashing figure, an Air Force pilot shot down during the Vietnam War — sometimes smoked a pipe. Maybe there was an unfathomed clue in that.

"They found a lighter at the crash site," he said. "Maybe it was his. They haven't told me that. But maybe it was."

And maybe that clue would lead to another clue that might lead to the identification of the remains of Air Force Maj. Charles E. "Bud" Rogers.

It's been almost 41 years since Maj. Rogers' single-engine, propeller-driven A-1E Skyraider was hit by ground fire on the morning of May 4, 1967, and crashed into trees with "no chute seen," according to an Air Force report.

"All I want is to repatriate his remains," said Kerry Rogers, 49, who lives in Dacula. "This has been hard on me. But my mother, who died a few years ago, never got over it. It destroyed her."

Rogers was with kindred spirits Saturday morning at a gathering at the Hyatt Regency Suites in Marietta of about 150, the families of American soldiers who are missing in action or whose remains have not been identified, going back to World War II — 63 years ago.

"They come because they want to know what we're doing, and we want to tell them what we're doing," said Larry Greer, director of public affairs for the U.S. government's Defense Prisoner of War/Missing Personnel Office. "And they get support from each other."

Since the DPMO was formed in 1993, it has hosted "Family Update" meetings across the country. The last time the Southeast regional meeting was in Atlanta was 2001. Last year, it was in Tampa.

In the opening address Saturday morning, DMPO Ambassador Charles A. Ray assured families that the department's staff of 600 was tireless in its efforts to find missing soldiers or identify their remains, and understood the frustration families must feel after all these decades of unsolved mystery.

"I know you want closure," he said.

For some, trusting the government takes time. Kerry Rogers' family, for instance, was told by the military that the father — who was posthumously awarded the Silver Star and Distinguished Flying Cross — was shot down in Vietnam.

Only years later did they learn Maj. Rogers was killed during a bombing mission over Laos, a country bordering Vietnam that, in 1967, the U.S. government did not acknowledge bombing.

As family members spoke during a remembrance ceremony before the daylong session, some wept, and voices cracked.

"I would like to know what happened to my brother before I pass on," said Alta Hollingsworth, 72, of Tuscaloosa, Ala.

The remains of her brother, Army Cpl. John C. Skelton, have not been identified since he was killed during an August 1951 battle in the Korean War.

"I've given [investigators] my blood [to match the DNA], and he's never been identified, and I don't know why," she said.

Greer said locating or identifying the remains of approximately 88,000 American soldiers who were POWs or are missing in action is time-consuming. The remains — "always skeletal" — are taken to a lab at Hickam Field in Hawaii, where technicians test them for DNA and against medical records.

"Sometimes a single tooth will identify the soldier," Greer said. The science can be amazing.

"We just identified a soldier from World War I," he said. World War I ended in 1918.

The DPMO is not investigating four MIAs from the current Iraq war because, Greer said, that is a continuing conflict under military command.

Hollingsworth drove to Atlanta for Saturday's meeting because she said she read that the remains of 12 soldiers from Korea were recently found.

"I'm hoping and praying one might be my brother," she said.

For Atlanta's Ann Perina, this was her third family update meeting. She has yet to come away knowing what happened to her brother, Marine 1st Lt. Leslie Shelton Jr.

He was declared killed in action in the Korean War, at Observation Post Harlow, two days after Christmas, Dec. 27, 1952. He was leading a squad of four Marines to retrieve the bodies of other Marines killed in an earlier battle.

"It was at night, but the field was illuminated and they came under intense machine gun fire," Perina said. "They were all seen to fall."

The next day, Americans saw Chinese troops taking two of the soldiers and leaving two on the battlefield. One of the Marines was released as a POW after the war, Perina said.

Was her brother one of the dead whose body was not recovered? Or was her brother a POW who either died in captivity or was never released?

The DPMO recently was given access to Chinese POW files for the first time. Investigators are just beginning to comb through them. Maybe soon Ann Perina will have an answer to whatever happened to her brother.

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