My first husband, Capt. Jerry Zimmer, was an F4B Phantom jet pilot, whose aircraft was shot down on August 29, 1969, approximately 20 miles South of Da Nang, Vietnam, after six months in country. Neither Jerry nor his navigator, 1st Lt. Al Graf, was able to eject, before the aircraft crashed into the Que Son Mountains. Initially Jerry and Al were classified as Killed in Action/No Body Recovered (KIA/NBR). Years later, both Marines were listed as MIA, along with other service members whose bodies were never recovered.
Jerry has been gone nearly a half century, and hope for recovering his remains had run out a long time ago. However, in recent years our family became involved with the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command (JPAC), now merged with the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA), and learned that Jerry’s and Al’s remains might, in fact, be recoverable, so we are doing everything possible to support their efforts to make this happen and bring our guys home where they belong.
NOTE: BLOG POSTS ARE NOT UPDATED, SO INFORMATION MAY HAVE CHANGED OVER TIME.
Vietnam War: Unilateral Recoveries May Save Our MIAs
Elaine visited the Base Camp during Jerry’s and Al’s excavation in August 2010 and met some members of the Vietnamese team who work side-by-side with JPAC conducting field operations in search of our MIAs in Vietnam. The Vietnamese selected to do this work have received extensive training and have been conducting unilateral operations in restricted locations for some time. This image was taken after both teams had been excavating Jerry’s and Al’s site throughout the day in 100 degree heat. The Vietnamese took a moment to propose a toast for the camera.
I knew change was coming in our Vietnam War recovery efforts when the 2010 National Defense Authorization Act included a mandate upping the number of MIA identifications from an average of 98 per year to 200 by 2015. If you understand the nature of recoveries/identifications, then you know that JPACs Central Identification Laboratory will be hard-pressed to meet that magic number, with or without Vietnam in the picture. Unfortunately, Vietnam recoveries have never delivered high numbers, so JPAC needs to go where it can bring home more MIAs to satisfy the new mandate. This means that efforts are being diverted to WWII locations.
And although I have been adamantly opposed to the mandate, I have adjusted to its reality and begun to look at the number’s game as an opportunity to move in a positive direction.
Also, at the beginning of our quest to find Jerry’s crash site and remains, I was not in favor of unilateral operations by the Vietnamese and expressed my feelings in past blogs. There was something so pure about having our active duty military, many of whom have served in the Middle East, working in the field on behalf of our loved ones. But that was naïve of me – I am 20 years too late (not 40 years, as some would like to think, since our Vietnam War recoveries waivered until the mid 1990s, in smoke-filled rooms with stalled negotiations).
It is time for the families of MIAs left behind from the Vietnam War to negotiate with our trusted decision-makers on the issue of revamping our recovery model in Southeast Asia. Maybe something akin to “let’s make a deal!”
I have been told that JPAC has trained its Vietnamese counterpart to competently conduct investigations and recoveries in Vietnam. Unless we tap into some sort of unilateral plan, managed by JPAC, I think the future of Vietnam operations will become history. We need to get back into the field where our loved ones’ remains are deteriorating rapidly. If JPAC needs to focus more on WWII locations to meet the numbers imposed by the mandate, this would lighten their load in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia.
JPAC could set up a semi-unilateral program in Vietnam — for starters — using it as a transitional model, since 90% of our MIAs were lost in Vietnam (Laos and Cambodia would likely follow Vietnam’s lead). I am confident that Ron Ward, Casualty Resolution Specialist in Hanoi’s Detachment 2, has the skills to help JPAC with implemention in Vietnam.
Focusing more on the use of civilians in the detachments would allow JPAC to set up a 5-year transitional plan, without interruption, but still report to PACOM for military leadership and support personnel. Obviously, the extent of any transition would be dependent upon several criteria, of which financial concerns and recovery results would top the list.
A gradual move to more unilateral operations would give JPAC time to revamp its policies involving restructuring negotiations, evaluating/educating more in-country recovery talent; and devising a management plan for JPACs Central Identification Laboratory.
If done correctly, a semi-unilateral program could be a win-win for JPAC, Vietnam and most of all for families with MIAs still unaccounted-for in the Vietnam War.