Lynn O'Shea, advocate for POW/MIA families, dies at 65
By MATTHEW M. BURKE | STARS AND STRIPES Published: December 10, 2015
Lynn O’Shea, whose advocacy for the families of missing U.S. servicemembers caught the attention of Congress and led to changes in the POW/MIA accounting system, died Dec. 5 after a yearlong battle with cancer. She was 65.
To many, O’Shea was simply a construction company bookkeeper from Queens, N.Y. However, to the families of troops who never came home from war, she was a lion, raising awareness on the shortcomings in the government’s personnel accounting mission that followed America’s military withdrawal from Southeast Asia.
At the time of her death, O’Shea was serving as the director of research for the National Alliance of Families for the Return of America’s Servicemen, the only national POW/MIA advocacy organization representing families from all past conflicts.
O’Shea’s decades of meticulous research uncovered the government’s Project X Study and the Tourison Memos — documents that indicated that American servicemembers who had been declared dead by the U.S. government had made it into enemy hands alive and that dozens could have been alive in captivity at the end of the Vietnam War in 1975.
Because of her work, she was called to testify before Congress on three occasions. She also authored “Abandoned In Place, The Men We Left Behind and the Untold Story of Operation Pocket Change,” considered one of the most comprehensive and best-researched studies on the U.S. government’s mishandling of the POW/MIA issue.
Her funeral Mass, held Thursday at Maria Regina Roman Catholic Church in Seaford, N.Y., drew throngs of POW/MIA family members and advocates from across the country.
“We are all at a loss, as are so many other families who have benefited from her untold, tireless efforts for our cause,” said John Matejov, whose brother, Joseph, went missing after his aircraft, call-sign Baron-52, crashed in Laos on Feb. 5, 1973.
Joseph Matejov was never found or identified, yet the U.S. government considered him “accounted for” after a group burial at Arlington National Cemetery in 1996. O’Shea’s research determined that four crewmembers survived the crash and were captured, evidence that put pressure on Congress to call for a status review of the case. That review is set to begin in 2016.
“In my family’s case, Lynn has been one of the most pivotal and effective allies,” John Matejov said. “Without the documentation she provided to us, we feel the upcoming review may not have been given the attention by congressional representatives, and the lawyers who clearly seek to correct the injustice done to our brother Joe and other members of the Baron-52 crew.”
Unlike most POW/MIA advocates, O’Shea was not related to a prisoner of war or missing servicemember. She told Stars and Stripes last year that she got involved in the movement because of the name on the POW/MIA bracelet that she wore — John Jakovac. The Army staff sergeant went missing in May 1967 while on a reconnaissance patrol in South Vietnam. His remains were recovered in 1994.
After receiving little information from the government on Jakovac’s case, O’Shea undertook her own research, which led her to work with the National Alliance of Families. She had been scouring government documents and researching cases for families ever since.
“I don’t think a single day goes by where I don’t spend some time dedicated to the POW/MIA issue,” she said last year.
O’Shea and the alliance’s work has led to many changes in the accounting of missing servicemembers, including the U.S.-Russian Joint Commission; the limited declassification of intelligence on prisoners and missing; the Senate Select Committee on POW/MIA Affairs; and the identification of 1st Lt. Michael Blassie from the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
“I think we’ve done well,” she said.
Earlier this year, O’Shea was initially involved in the reorganization of the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command into the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency. However, she and other members of the alliance were expelled from the reorganization efforts for insisting that staff members responsible for JPAC’s dysfunction be fired.
Her work will always be remembered by the families of missing troops.
“She helped elevate our case to one that now is somewhat of a priority,” said the alliance’s liaison to the Defense Department and Congress, Mary Ann Reitano, whose cousin, Marine Cpl. Gregory Harris, went missing after being ambushed and overrun in Vietnam’s Quang Ngai province on June 12, 1966. Harris was declared dead and placed in the “no further pursuit category.”
The government insisted he was likely buried on a sandbar downstream from the battlefield, but the family doubted the finding. Thanks to her research, O’Shea was able to supply the family with documents in which the Vietnamese admitted taking Harris alive. The case has since been re-examined.
“They have finally admitted that the sandbar story is not plausible,” Reitano said. “The last time we met with them the word ‘sandbar’ was never even mentioned. Do you have any idea what that feels like? Twelve years of battling and finally they admit it because of all that Lynn taught us — we were right.”
Matejov, Reitano and others said they are resolved to carry the torch for O’Shea.
A year ago, O’Shea talked about her belief that people would step up to the plate.
“We’re finding that a lot of the kids [of the missing from the Vietnam War] are passing now,” O’Shea said. “You’re losing spouses. The parents are mostly gone. But you’re seeing grandkids and nieces and nephews coming in. As long as the groups are there, it will be sustained.”