Family celebrates return of remains of fallen Korean War soldier
By HOLLY ZACHARIAH | The Columbus Dispatch, Ohio | Published: March 10, 2018
COLUMBUS, Ohio (Tribune News Service) — Abner Bryant, in his snappy white suit and tipped hat, walked down the aisle toward the flag-draped casket that held his brother. And he couldn't help but smile.
He stopped and looked around at the more than 100 people gathered inside White's Funeral Home on Friday, most of whom were rushing forward to hug him and snap family photos. He soaked in the moment. How could he be sad, he asked, when after 67 years without answers, he finally had his brother home?
Army Pfc. Leroy Bryant was one week shy of his 23rd birthday when, on Feb. 6, 1951, somewhere near Yanghyon-ni, South Korea, his C Company, 1st Battalion, 9th Infantry Regiment of the 2nd Infantry Division came under attack. He was listed that day as missing in action.
After the Korean War, however, a fellow soldier reported that they had been captured and that Leroy had died of an illness on July 3, 1951, while on a march across the country to Prison Camp 1 near the village of Changsong. His body was never recovered, and the family still clung to a thread of hope.
As the years ticked by, the Bryant brothers' parents died. Then eight siblings. Abner, 77, is the only one left.
"We always wished he was here, always wished he was coming back," he said of his brother. "But he wasn't."
That changed last year.
The unidentified remains of nearly 900 troops recovered from Korean War camps and battlefields after the war have long been interred at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Honolulu. As DNA technology advanced over the years, the federal government's Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency has gotten more aggressive in using DNA evidence to identify them. Last year, Abner got his news: The previously unidentified remains known simply as X-14155 were Leroy. He was coming home.
His remains arrived Wednesday at John Glenn Columbus International Airport from Honolulu. The funeral was held Friday at White's on the East Side. Nieces, nephews, cousins, friends and dignitaries packed the house. This was no somber service; it was a joyful celebration full of thanks to God and His grace.
State Rep. Hearcel Craig, a Columbus Democrat and an Army veteran himself, was among the local officials who spoke. Craig thundered away at the microphone, and he preached as much as he eulogized, bringing chorus upon chorus of "Amen" and "Praise Jesus" from the gallery.
"Let me say this to the family: It is such as honor to be here today," he said. "I served in the 1970s, and I can tell you unequivocally, we stand on the shoulders of Private First Class Bryant. This is real for us."
Columbus City Council President Shannon G. Hardin also spoke, and he summed up the two moods of the day.
"A portion of myself is pensive ... as I think that he gave up his life. I think of the mother and father who had a son who didn't come home," he said. "But then there is a spirit of gratitude and gratefulness. Pfc. Bryant is home today and for that, we are grateful."
Franklin County Commissioner Kevin Boyce and Chip Tansill, the director of the Ohio Department of Veterans Services, also spoke. The latter brought more than a few to tears.
"I cannot imagine what Pfc. Bryant went through when he was captured, but I can tell you that every single day he was in captivity, he thought of you," he said. "He thought of coming home to you."
That very notion has been the hardest part of this, said Wanda Lott, Leroy's niece and Abner's daughter.
In January, Army Capt. Patrick Hernandez visited Abner and gave him Leroy's service medals. Hernandez also gave the family the official government report about all that is known of Leroy's case. It said he had died of a bacterial infection while on that long march to a POW camp. It described the condition the remains were in, and noted that he was missing fingers on each hand.
Wanda said reading it proved too much. She wondered about her Uncle Leroy's hands: Had he been tortured? Had he suffered from frostbite?
"I was putting myself in his shoes, and it was so hard to do," Wanda said. "He was out there, hurting, no Momma or Grandma to comfort him, nobody to turn to. We didn't want to think of him all alone."
But the family chose not to stay sad. That's why they made Friday joyful.
"I feel like this family is really blessed," said Wrisper Briggs, a niece of both Abner and Leroy. "You think of how many other families in our situation live their whole lives not knowing, and they leave this earth without answers."
More than 82,000 U.S. troops remain unaccounted for from all wars; nearly 7,800 of them are still listed as missing in action from the Korean War.
After Friday's service, the long line of cars made its way to Eastlawn Cemetery on Woodland Avenue – where so many others from this family that has always called Columbus home are buried – for all that is expected at a military funeral. The click-click of soldiers' heels as they march in cadence with the casket. The gun salute. Taps.
When all that was finished, an Army officer handed the folded American flag to Abner and thanked him on behalf of a grateful nation. Abner finally dropped his head and wept.
As the crowd broke up and people headed to their cars, he stayed behind in his seat. He needed a moment with his brother. Just one. A moment to finally say a proper goodbye.
(c)2018 The Columbus Dispatch (Columbus, Ohio)
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