Return of remains from N. Korea stirs nostalgia for families with missing loved ones
By HOWARD ALTMAN | Tampa Bay Times, St. Petersburg, Fla. | Published: July 28, 2018
TAMPA, Fla. (Tribune News Service) — Sharon Cook was happy to learn Friday that the remains of U.S. servicemembers who disappeared during the Korean War were apparently being returned after nearly seven decades.
"I had such a smile on my face when I read about it," said Cook, of St. Petersburg, Fla. "It is just a good feeling that more military men are coming home and more families will be able to sort of greet them."
It is a feeling Cook understands.
Last month, the remains of her first husband, Air Force Capt. James White, were returned to the United States nearly 50 years after he disappeared when his F-105D Thunderchief fighter jet crashed in Laos during the Vietnam War.
"It’s amazing that these remains are from the Korean War," Cook said. "That was 65 years ago. How encouraging it is to know that there will be further identifications like Jim."
The White House announced Thursday that a U.S. Air Force C-17 aircraft containing remains of fallen servicemembers had left Wonsan, North Korea.
The remains arrived at Osan Air Base in South Korea on Friday, the 65th anniversary of the armistice that ended the bloody Korean war — a conflict that claimed more than 36,000 American lives.
The arrival came just a month after President Donald Trump attended an historic summit with Korean dictator Kim Jong-un. Among other developments, the two leaders ironed out a deal there for the return of remains.
Between 1996 and 2005, joint U.S.-North Korea search teams conducted 33 joint recovery operations and recovered 229 sets of American remains, according to the AP. Washington broke off the search for safety reasons. Critics of the recovery program argued that North Korea was using the deal to squeeze cash out of Washington in a "bones for bucks" deal.
The number of troops missing from the war numbers 7,699, including 157 from Florida, according to the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency.
To date, the remains of just 455 people have been returned, including six from Florida.
The Air Force C-17 carried 55 boxes of what are believed to be the remains of American servicemen missing from North Korea, Army Sgt. 1st Class Kristen Duus, a spokeswoman for the accounting agency, told the Tampa Bay Times in an email.
It will take time to determine exactly how many remains are being returned and who they belong to, Duus said.
Because they were collected by a third country, North Korea, the agency must follow the labor-intensive process of inventorying the remains to ensure they are human and American.
Then they must be identified. Sometimes, the remains are no bigger than bone fragments.
The easiest method, when possible, is using dental records. The accounting agency also uses anthropological analysis, checking gender, ethnicity, age and other factors. Sometimes, chest x-ray analysis is used if they were available in the service member’s file.
Use of DNA analysis has increased dramatically. Analysts also rely circumstantial and material evidence about where service members are lost and identifying factors such as jewelry and dog tags.
The whole process can take several months, Duust said.
Cook, who attended a memorial service for her first husband at West Point last month, said those whose loved ones went missing in Korea will experience an emotional roller coaster with the news about the returned remains.
"There are going to be families surprised by the news," she said. "You try to remain emotionally even until you get the final word, but that is not so easy. There are a lot of ups and downs."
Ron Woolums knows the feeling, too.
Last year, he was notified by the accounting agency that the remains of his uncle, Army Air Forces 2nd Lt. John Donald Mumford, were finally identified more than 70 years after his P-51 Mustang fighter was shot down over Romania in 1944.
"It is a lot of relief for one thing, to know that they’re back," said Woolums, 71, of St. Petersburg, who praised the work of the accounting agency.
Not everyone experiences such closure.
Pam Cain of Bradenton, Fla., is on the board of directors of the National League of POW/MIA families. In 1966, her father, Air Force Col Oscar Mauterer, disappeared in Laos, never to be found.
"Any time we are able to bring home as we called them unreturned veterans is a positive thing," Cain said. "But as the daughter of someone who is still missing, I can tell you it doesn’t get any easier. So we need to do whatever we can to bring our veterans home, because there are many families still waiting."
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