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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.

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MIA in Vietnam: Why I Need to Bring Home Jerry’s Remains

Wednesday, April 13, 2011 @ 11:04 AM  posted by Elaine Zimmer Davis

Jerry and Craig in Beaufort, SC -- Jerry's last duty station before deploying to Vietnam. Photo: 1968

Every family with an MIA in Vietnam or elsewhere in the world has a story to tell of why they want their loved one’s remains to come home. I am not sure if I answered my own question in this blog, but I am dedicated to seeing the journey through, no matter how it ends.

When Jerry left for Vietnam in 1969, we said good-bye to each other at Logan Airport in Boston, MA. Like all other young pilots, he was excited to get over to Vietnam and join his Marine Corps buddies from Basic School and Flight School. I never thought that our tearful good-bye on a cold day in February, four decades ago, would be our last. During Jerry’s time in country, I watched every TV segment about the war, knew the names of battles and cared deeply about our military—not just Jerry, but everyone fighting in that faraway country for a cause that seemed justified at the time. Everything changed in a matter of minutes when a Marine Corps casualty officer showed up at my door six months later, telling me that Jerry was not coming home in a casket or otherwise. We were a week away from R&R in Hawaii. I was packed and ready to go. The Zimmers were arriving the next morning to take Craig back to the farm during my absence. It wasn’t to be.

After a couple of years, I stopped talking publicly about Jerry, trying to bury the pain that one feels after losing the person with whom they already had mapped out a lifetime of plans. I never imagined that Jerry would not come home, but that event changed my life forever in ways that would be difficult to explain nowadays. I was remarried within a year to a young Marine helicopter pilot who lived across the street from where I had relocated in Tustin, California, with Jerry’s and my son, Craig.

Soon after Ron and I married, we visited Jerry’s family in upstate New York where they lived on a dairy farm. I wanted them to know that they would always be my in-laws and that Craig would always be their grandson and proudly carry the Zimmer name. I never reneged on those promises, even though Ron wanted to adopt Craig, especially after our own son, Brett, was born. I couldn’t do it, and Ron understood.

Years later, Jerry’s mom told me that she and my father-in-law knew that “I needed someone,” and they accepted Ron as their own. However, the Zimmers never recovered from the loss of Jerry, and I understood that better than anyone. Every summer for years Craig traveled east to the Zimmer farm so that he could bond with his grandparents in ways that Jerry would have wanted. When Brett became old enough to accompany Craig, the Zimmers opened their hearts and home to him, as well. Our sons have always remained close to the Zimmer family and to my parents, too, when they were still living.

Most people learn to deal with pain in ways that work best for them. Mine was to adopt an avoidance technique — I simply refused to face Jerry’s death for years but led a normal, productive life. With the exception of a few friends, I rarely spoke about my life with Jerry. Most people did not realize that Craig had a different last name, but those that did would have thought that I was divorced and remarried—it was the era of revolving doors. It took decades before I could watch a war movie or attend a Blue Angels Air Show, and the list went on, which was unfair to Ron but my way of coping.

Although I cared deeply for Jerry’s and my friends, I couldn’t stay connected to them after his death. It was too painful, and I felt guilty for having remarried so soon. However, I never allowed myself to get close to people ever again like I had during my years with Jerry. I’m sure a psychologist could have a field day with my survival techniques, but if you never have to say good-bye, you never feel a loss.

In 2004, Ron and I were living briefly in Hong Kong and had an opportunity to visit Vietnam. We tried to visit Jerry’s crash site, but the weather and everything else made it impossible. I remember the day when Ron and I stood in what used to be An Hoa Fire Base, and he pointed off in the distance to where Jerry had crashed. Reality smacked me in the face. From that day forward, Jerry was back in my life, and this time I vowed not to use avoidance anymore as a coping technique—except in one case.

It took me another four years to open Jerry’s trunk, which had moved with us multiple times over the past 40 years, but I finally worked up the courage. It was one of the toughest days of my life but a necessity in my overall plan of returning to Vietnam and finding Jerry’s crash site. (Little did I know at the time that finding the site would be just the beginning). I needed to “feel” again, so I reread all the letters from Jerry, fellow Marines and our friends, but there was one thing that I couldn’t do. Jerry had sent Craig and me tapes from Vietnam, but they were antiques (as Craig reminded me). Thanks to technology, Craig had them remade into CDs. He couldn’t wait to hear his dad’s voice, and although I was sure the tapes were fairly R rated, I didn’t care and told him to have sets made for the Zimmers, too.

I tried for weeks to play one of the CDs, because Craig kept telling me that I should do it. Finally, I slipped one of the them into my computer and heard Jerry’s voice for the first time since we had talked years earlier through a MARS (Ham Radio) connection – it was like he had returned from the dead. He said, “Honey, I’m back,” and I immediately ejected the CD, knowing I wasn’t ready for the shock. Words can’t explain my reaction.

Unlike years ago when I would have packed the CDs away, today I know that a time will come in the near future when I will listen to the three CDs. I’ve also faced another realization: The search to find Jerry’s remains and hopefully to bring them home has become as much about my recovery, as it has about Jerry’s. No matter what, Jerry will never be forgotten.

4 Responses to “MIA in Vietnam: Why I Need to Bring Home Jerry’s Remains”

  1. Dianne says:

    Elaine, Thank you for continuing to tell your story. My husband served with Jerry and we continue to follow the search.

  2. Dianne — Thank you for staying connected. Jerry would want to come home, if possible–I think your husband would agree. Elaine

  3. Jack Wells says:

    Elaine,

    You write and express yourself very well. Yours and Jerry’s story needs to be told, and I will look forward to your book.

  4. Thank you, Jack — you are an inspiration to me, as I am sure you are to many others.


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