In the remains identification process of American POW/MIAs, the Department of Defense basis its findings more on assumptions than facts. Further, the USG has lost sight of what is important in obtaining a real, factual and honest accounting for those men and women. They have confused the APPEARANCE of an accounting with the REALITY of one. In its headlong rush to get the numbers down, the USG has forgotten these are real people with names, faces, families, and friends who loved them, who laughed with them, cried with them, and who miss them. Families and friends who need, require - and will continue to demand - complete, honest and truthful answers to their questions.
Quite succinctly, what the families, as well as veterans and concerned citizens, want from the USG in the accounting process is very simple and straight forward: TRUTH AND HONESTY.
1. If remains reportedly belonging to a specific American are returned/recovered in sufficient type and quantity to determine the man or woman died; if these remains can be positively, scientifically identified as being that person, then wonderful. Getting honest answers is what we all want.
2. If remains are recovered, such as a tooth or portions of a body a person can live without, and those remains are passed off as the total remains of a missing person, that constitutes deception, and we have a problem.
3. Further, if small fragments of remains which can only be identified as human are declared to be the mortal and complete remains of a specific person, then we have a greater deception and problem.
From our standpoint, gaining a righteous accounting by our government means:
1. Above all else, the return of living Americans, regardless of their status and/or physical/mental condition, by whatever means necessary. If that means paying for them, then do it. What price do you place on a human life?
2. The return of properly, scientifically identifiable remains when possible.
3. The ability to know if unidentifiable remains are recovered from a specific crash site, that may or may not be all we ever find of those people.
4. If a family requests an independent examination of remains, they should not be forced to accept those remains before such an examination can be conducted.
5. Do not force a family to accept unidentifiable remains as their loved one just to get the numbers down.
6. When unidentifiable remains, or a tooth, are refused as the total remains of their loved one by a family, do not bury those remains in a federal cemetery under a headstone bearing that person's name against their desires.
7. Do not lie to the American public by telling them remains have been positively identified when, in fact, they have not.
8. If there is live sighting information pertaining to a specific person or incident, that information is followed up on correctly. Witnesses should not be threatened, harassed or intimidated by USG officials as they have been in the past in an attempt to force them to recant their information just because it is politically inconvenient.
9. Above all else, TELL THE TRUTH. We all can live with the truth no matter how ugly and unsettling it may be. We cannot - and will not - live with lies or distortions. In the end, for those men and women whose remains can never be recovered or positively identified, we will have the comfort of knowing everything that honestly could be done was done thereby providing a realistic conclusion to this issue. That in itself provides peace of mind.
Frankly, what we get from the highly convoluted USG system of investigation and analysis depends more upon procedure and methodology than upon practical results. For example, in announcing what amounts to mock burials, the Department of Defense proudly talked about "remains" and cases "accounted for."
Clearly, the implication is that physical remains have been recovered and returned to their families. Yet that is not what the bureaucratic systems means. DOD has its own language, its own definitions of ordinary words, and its own purposes to be served.
When DOD says "accounted for," it means only that DOD has gone through a stereotyped process that allows it to close the files on a case. It means that all reports of sightings of specific individuals by eyewitnesses have been "checked out," and either dismissed or investigated. The USG learned early on it is easier to dismiss any reports out of hand by discrediting the witnesses, or by insisting that the reports meet specific bureaucratic criteria the parameters of which are impossible to meet, than it is to actually check them out.
DOD's use of the term "remains" does not meet the ordinary definition of the word. For DOD, the word "remains" refers not to the actual physical remains, but to an abstract concept deduced from circumstances.
Anyone reading the following standard USG press release would assume that the remains of each one of those crewmen was found, that forensic experts were able to positively identify each one of those sets of remains, and that the families of each one of those men will at least be comforted by the knowledge that they know where the bodies of their loved ones lie. Unfortunately, that may not be the case.
"Remains recovered during a joint excavation efforts by the US and Lao (or Vietnamese) governments have resulted in accounted for the four servicemen. The remains of these Americans will depart Hickam AFB, HI in a full military honors ceremony and will travel to Travis AFB, CA for the final journey home."
In practice, DOD works by a process of deduction. Records of an incident show the duty position of each crewman. Any remains found in the appropriate place in the wreckage for a given crew position are arbitrarily assigned to the case of that crewman. For an initial step, that is reasonable. In some cases teeth and dental work can be identified, but in many cases human bone fragments are to small to be positively identified. Ultimately, the beginning step becomes also their final one, and the case is stamped "resolved," tentative and unverified though the identification may be.
For example, in reality there may only be minuscule bone fragments and a tooth or two recovered, none of which could be identified by any objective forensic analysis as being anything other than human. Yet all men who were aboard the aircraft, which was excavated by a joint recovery team, as now recovered and accounted for by our government. Further, near empty to empty caskets are buried in a national cemetery under headstones bearing the names of each one of the crewmen whose remains were supposedly recovered. Any visitor to the cemetery seeing that headstone would wrongly assume the man's mortal remains were interred there.
By and large, the families were thrilled when they first received the news that their sons had been found; but they were shocked when, upon further inquiry, they learned no actual remains were being returned - just empty coffins.
Many families would prefer to know simply that the aircraft/vehicle had been found at their man's crash site location, and that unidentifiable remains were recovered inside. Under these circumstances, they would be happy to join in a ceremony commemorating anyone who may have died in the crash, knowing that it may or may not include their loved one. Further, such action on the part of a family should not be construed by our government as their acceptance of fraudulent, unidentifiable remains.
DOD goes even further. When no actual human remains are found, or not enough remains are found to account for each crewman, DOD declares that the whole crew has been accounted for, and frequently those few, if any, unidentifiable fragments are buried in a mass grave. In this manner empty caskets are returned as symbolic remains and the families of these men are left alone, isolated and even more vulnerable than before.
The problem with this method, although bureaucratically convenient for closing cases, is that it is dishonest. The missing servicemen may well have escaped by jumping in the last moments before the crash, something not impossible, particularly from a helicopter. If that is the case, the man may have survived his loss incident only to disappear as a prisoner of war. This fact is very inconvenient for closing cases, particularly if there are live sighting reports of the missing man for the USG to contend with.
The question remains as to why such efforts are made to resolve cases instead of vigorously prosecuting any reasonable leads on POW/MIAs. Part of the answer lies within another USG press release statement: "The serious cooperation of the Lao (or Vietnamese) Government was instrumental in achieving productive results from this joint operation and is deeply appreciated by the US Government. The most important measure by which to judge success of agreements reached between Washington and Vientiane (or Hanoi) to broader cooperation on the POW/MIA issue is obtaining final answers for the families of Americans missing in action in Southeast Asia."
DOD had not obtained final answers for the families, nor can the results be described as truly productive when nothing has been produced. This fawning appreciation lavished upon a government that may well be concealing the fate of many other American POW/MIAs suggests that politics has been placed before the essence of the American family. And sadly, in our government's eyes, any quantity of real, fictitious or imagined remains equal success.