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Search for the missing continues.

Forever young, their faded photographs still grace places of honor in homes across our nation. Their parents, widows, children, brothers and sisters still reach to touch their photos to connect once again to a cherished loved one who left their lives so suddenly and so completely. Their names are etched in the black granite walls of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., for a nation to remember, but the memories are most vivid to those who loved them.

They disappeared in the fog of a war that ended more than 30 years ago. But for their families, there is no relief. Only a lifetime of grief and the fading hope that somehow they may yet be alive, even though our government has long ago officially declared them dead.

The fate of families whose loved ones were officially "last known alive," or LKA, is the most heart-wrenching of the Vietnam War. For some, closure mercifully has come; for others, each of what the government calls "live sightings" stirs hope, even the slimmest hope that they are alive. For the LKA families, the tears still flow, and the pain is as raw as it was decades ago.

On March 7, 1971, Army Chief Warrant Officer Randolph J. Ard of West Pensacola, Fla., was flying three passengers in his OH-58A Kiowa helicopter near the Vietnam-Laos border. As the craft approached a landing zone, it was hit by enemy antiaircraft fire and crashed. Two of the passengers survived the crash and evaded capture as enemy forces attacked the downed helicopter. The passengers said Ard and Col. Sheldon J. Burnett of Pelham, N.H., were alive, but badly injured after the crash.

When South Vietnamese ground forces reached the crash site 11 days later, they found no trace of Ard or Burnett and no sign of graves.

Five field investigations between 1989 and 1996 failed to produce any evidence of what happened to Ard and Burnett. But in 2002, four former North Vietnamese soldiers said they knew of the crash and three had seen the bodies of the two men. In 2003, the four witnesses and local Lao villagers guided the team to the crash site, where only aircraft wreckage was found. In 2004, U.S. and Loatian specialists found and excavated two nearby graves finding human remains, military clothing and personal effects, including Ard's identification tag.

The remains were identified as Ard and Burnett. Ard's remains now rest in Alabama, and Burnett was buried at Arlington National Cemetery. They are two soldiers who for decades were listed as LKA--their fate unknown to their families.

"Many believe and have believed for years that not every American held by the enemy was repatriated after the Vietnam War," said National Legislative Director Joseph A. Violante. "Our mission is and always has been the fullest accounting of all missing in action and prisoners of war, especially those who were last known alive."

"The fullest possible accounting is our goal," said Acting Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for POW/ MIA Affairs Bob Newberry. "The work is complex and precise. The entire community does everything it can--as a team--to get the fullest possible accounting for the families of those missing. Realistically, the families know that it may not always be possible, but that is our goal."

Only one American emerged from Vietnam years after the war ended, Marine Pvt. Robert Garwood who was repatriated in 1979. But for decades POW/MIA families clung to reports that more Americans were seen alive in Southeast Asia, only to have their hopes dashed when their loved ones didn't return.

The Department of Defense Prisoner of War/Missing Personnel Office (DPMO) has, so far, determined the fate of 162 of the original 196 individuals last known alive. To date, the DPMO has recovered the remains of 62 LKAs--48 from Vietnam, 11 from Laos and three from Cambodia. For their families, closure came as the result of the dogged determination of a new generation of American service members who swore to keep the promise to "bring them home, honor their sacrifices and keep faith with their fellow warriors and families."

As of Jan. 1, 2006, DPMO reports there are 34 individuals whose fate is still unresolved. And the search for them goes on.

Newberry says the recovery of LKAs "is an indication to us that our decades of analysis and detective work are actually leading to closure for some families. These can be some of our more difficult cases, and when one is resolved, it's not only professionally but personally rewarding."

According to a declassified National Intelligence Estimate on Vietnam and POW/MIA Issues, there are unexplained reports that some POWs were sent to Russia and other countries. The report says 120 live-sighting investigations carried out by U.S. personnel did not develop any credible evidence of American POWs left in Vietnam. Further, Vietnam is reluctant to conduct live sighting investigations, but cooperates with American investigators.

Since the end of the Vietnam War, the United States has received and investigated 22,745 live sighting reports. Most were recovered dog tags, hearsay reports or crash and grave sites. But some 1,980 were firsthand live sighting reports. Investigations by the Defense Department found that nearly 68 percent related to Americans who were accounted for, such as repatriated prisoners of war, missionaries or civilians jailed at various times for violation of Vietnamese laws. Another 28 percent were fabrications.

Only 38, or less than 2 percent, were unresolved firsthand reports that were deemed credible for further investigation. Of that number, three were reported sightings of Americans in a non-captive environment, such as working as truck drivers or married with a Vietnamese family. The other 35 were Americans reported in a captive environment. But the number of unresolved reports has declined with the passage of time.

Prior to 1976, there were 27 unresolved live sightings reports. In the 30 years since then, there have been just 11. Only one remained unresolved in the 1980s, but seven remain unresolved over the last 10 years.

Of the 9,769 "dog tag" reports on 8,275 individuals, only 170 related to individuals who remain unaccounted for, according to DPMO.

"We are pleased that DPMO continues to actively and aggressively pursue live sightings reports," said Violante. "The resolution of the last LKA case will mean that for these families, the Vietnam War will finally be over."

The recovery of an LKA "enables a family member to know the last page of the last chapter in the life of a loved one," said Newberry. "Finally, they know the full story, after years of uncertainty and maybe even doubt. When we can help achieve that kind of closure for any family, it's a great sense of satisfaction."

"Unfortunately, there is much to do," he said. "And, as long as there is war, there is the likelihood that there will be service members, civilians and contractors who will be missing in action."

As of Jan. 26, 2006, there were 1,807 Americans listed by the Defense Department as missing and unaccounted for from the Vietnam War. For most of their families, the fate of their loved ones is known. But for the families of the LKAs, the war goes on--just as it does for the searchers and recovery teams.
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Author:Wilborn, Thom
Publication:DAV Magazine
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:May 1, 2006
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