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Keeping a promise to POW, MIA families

HOUSTON -- Staff Sgt. Cynthia Iniguez from the casualty office at the Air Force Personnel Center at Randolph Air Force Base, Texas, speaks with family members at a recent meeting for families of servicemembers missing from past wars.  More than 150 Texas families met in Houston with military representatives and officials from the Defense POW/Missing Personnel office, the agency responsible for oversight of the recovery process.  (U.S. Air Force photo by 1st Lt. Brandon Lingle)

HOUSTON -- Staff Sgt. Cynthia Iniguez from the casualty office at the Air Force Personnel Center at Randolph Air Force Base, Texas, speaks with family members at a recent meeting for families of servicemembers missing from past wars. More than 150 Texas families met in Houston with military representatives and officials from the Defense POW/Missing Personnel office, the agency responsible for oversight of the recovery process. (U.S. Air Force photo by 1st Lt. Brandon Lingle)

HOUSTON (AFPN) -- The day before five soldiers became prisoners of war in Operation Iraqi Freedom, a meeting for relatives of some still lost from past wars demonstrated the eternal promise that everyone comes home.

A "Family Member Update" brought experts working on POW and MIA cases together to share information with more than 150 Texas families.

"I've forgotten how emotional these can be," said David Lewis, who was 10 years old April 7, 1965, when he found out his father, Col. James W. Lewis, would not be returning from a B-57 mission over Laos. "It stirs up a lot of stuff."

"It helps talking to the other families," said Chris Cope, whose uncle, Capt. Troy "Gordy" Cope, is still unaccounted for after being shot down in his F-86 Sabre near Dandong, China, on Sept. 16, 1952. "I was a basket case at my first update."

While some experts pinpoint crash sites on computerized maps, others discuss the differences between mitochondrial DNA and nuclear DNA to identify remains. Still others speak on the dangers and difficulties of working in jungles and rice paddies, on rock cliffs and arctic tundra to find clues to the fates of missing loved ones.

The last news Cope's family received came in 1995 when a businessman reported seeing his dog tags in a Chinese war museum. At the meeting, an intelligence analyst showed Chris the recently found Russian documents containing testimonies of the MiG pilot who downed "Gordy" and the people who found the wreckage. One account indicated that the pilot died in the crash.

Chris is relieved to hear the news, since it lessened the likelihood that his uncle suffered at a prison camp.

"He probably wouldn't have made it that long at a camp anyway," he said. "Gordy weighed 137 pounds and was diabetic. We're still planning to go over to the museum (in China). We would like to at least get his dog tags."

Today's open approach to families has not always been the case.

When his dad was shot down, David said, information was hard to come by and his family was not allowed to say that the plane went down in Laos.

"Now the government is giving us information," he said. "It's 180 degrees different than ... the past."

Lewis' crash site was verified in 1997 and possible human remains were located in January.

"Since they've found remains, it's tough ... one of those mixed blessings," said Susan Powell, whose brother, Maj. Arthur Baker, was the navigator on Lewis' plane. "I'm having feelings that I should have had 38 years ago. It just goes on and on."

Working with family members on a daily basis can take an emotional toll, according to Capt. David Robinson, chief of the Air Force missing person's team. "We have to stay focused, and the families are our focus. To bring closure to a family makes our work gratifying."

Tense faces hide decades of not knowing what happened to husbands, fathers, brothers and sons. Tears are common. The updates allow families to share experiences with others still enduring the same emotions.

The families "don't experience a typical pattern of grief," said Dr. Kaye Whitley, senior director for communications for the Defense POW/Missing Personnel Office and original proponent of the updates. "Many of these family members are still in the first stage of the mourning process. They don't have closure and these events bring the feelings back as if it happened yesterday."

The update program was started in 1995 for the families of the more than 78,000 people still missing from World War II, Korea, Vietnam and the Cold War. There are 18,000 family members registered with the service branch casualty offices -- the families' main point of contact with the government.

The next of 10 regional updates held every year is scheduled for April 26 in Detroit.

More information about the recovery efforts for missing personnel can be found at www.dtic.mil/dpmo.

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