One of the lingering and deeply troubling aftermaths of any war is the unknown fate of those listed as missing in action (MIA). These individuals were killed on the battlefield unseen, or died as prisoners, or met with other misfortune. What they all have in common is that they have disappeared and their bodies have not been found.
"When someone is killed, there's finality," says Ann Mills Griffiths, executive director of the National League of Families of American Prisoners and Missing in Southeast Asia. "With those who are missing, there's uncertainty. It's harder to know when to give up hope and when to begin grieving." Griffiths is also sister to Vietnam MIA Lt. Commander James B. Mills of the U.S. Navy Reserves.
Since the League was officially founded in 1970, it has pushed the U.S. government to make the "fullest possible accounting" of the 2,583 MIAs missing in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia at war's end.
"Our nation has an obligation to stand behind those who serve," Griffiths says. "That means that if someone becomes captured or missing every reasonable effort is made to account for them." It's a cause that many active duty men also are invested in, Griffiths notes. "They want to know that if something happens to them, they won't be left behind."
A more serious search for MIAs began with President Ronald Reagan's election in 1980 and has continued since that time. "On any given day, there are five hundred men and women in the Department of Defense looking for MIAs around the world," notes Larry Greer, spokesman for the Defense POW/Missing Personnel Office. To date, the remains of nearly 600 MIAs from the Vietnam War have been identified.
No MIAs have been found alive, despite alleged sightings that inspire the hopes of some relatives. "Nobody is under any illusion that lots of people are still alive," says Griffiths. "The vast majority of families are very realistic. But until we get answers, questions remain."
Most efforts now are concentrated on locating and then identifying remains. Co-operative search programs exist with Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Korea, and even Central Europe and Russia (there are 124 Cold War MIAs as well). One of the spillovers from the MIA search in Vietnam is the belated search for MIAs from other wars (8,100 Americans were lost in the Korean War, and 78,000 in World War II). Since 1996, when North Korea opened up its borders to excavation teams, the remains of over 70 American servicemen from that war have been recovered. Once political channels are opened, military personnel conduct interviews with veterans who may have clues about disappearances, and also comb domestic military records and those of one-time enemies. Greer describes it as "a massive detective hunt for people who might have been lost thirty, forty or fifty years ago."
The detective work may lead to a particular rice paddy or battlefield. Ground-penetrating radar can be used to locate and detect buried bodies. When evidence is strong, an onsite excavation is done.
If remains are found, scientists go to work. "Computers now play a huge role in identification of remains," says Greer. One computer program, only a few years old, enables forensic dentists to match one single tooth to thousands of dental records, something that was nearly impossible to do before computers. The technique has helped identify old as well as newer remains, Greer says. When only bone fragments are found, anthropologists stationed in Hanoi determine if they are human bones, and if so, if they are Asian. If not, they are presumed American. But before they are flown to the Central Identification Lab in Honolulu, former soldiers are placed in flag-covered, coffin-like containers draped with a U.S. flag and honored with a silent honor guard escort. Greer says that the remains of hundreds of MIAs have been identified by matching their mitochondrial DNA to the DNA of someone from their maternal line.
Since the push by the United States to find MIAs, other nations also have begun to search more vigorously for their MIAs. In Vietnam, more than 300,000 troops are still unaccounted for. Dr. Tran Van Ban, who buried hundreds of North Vietnamese soldiers during the war, has made it his mission to help identify the remains of both comrades and former enemies from the war. So far, he has helped locate more than 600 soldiers.
"I'm sad that the number I've found is so small compared to the number of mothers and fathers dreaming of finding their children," Ban once said. It's a feeling that loved ones of MIAs from any war are certain to understand.