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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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VIETNAM WAR: POW/MIA Family League Scores a Victory

Monday, August 15, 2011 @ 05:08 PM  posted by Elaine Zimmer Davis

Robert Newberry, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense (DASD) for POW/Missing Personnel Affairs, and Peter Verga, Chief of Staff for the Under Secretary for Policy, Department of Defense, at the recent meeting in Washington, D.C., of the Nat'l League of POW/MIA Families. Both men were supportive of increasing MIA recovery efforts from the Vietnam War. A recap of that meeting is below. NOTE: THERE ARE MORE PHOTOS IN THE GALLERY - SORRY FOR THE POOR QUALITY!

I’m reasonably sure that many families attending last month’s three-day meeting of the Nat’l League of POW/MIA Families in D.C. felt that they’d heard it all before, and they may well be correct – but I don’t think so, and I mean that from a positive perspective!  (Also See “Not Over ‘Til It’s Over”).

There was an outpouring of support to continue recovery efforts in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, from prominent politicians and military leaders in D.C. – Peter Verga, Chief of Staff for the Under Secretary for Policy; Congressman Tim Walz (D-MN), US-Russia Joint Commission for POW/MIA Affairs; Lt. Gen. Ronald Burgess, USA, Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA); and Brig. Gen Richard Simcock, USMC, Principal Director, South & Southeast Asia, who spoke in strategic terms, explaining that U.S. interests were important in the Asia/Pacific region, telling everyone that our country is a Pacific Nation and that Vietnam will play an important role in shaping our policy in that region. “Our interaction needs to start somewhere. It needs to start with the military,” said Brig. Gen. Simcock, who talked of a growing friendship with the Vietnamese, both on a professional and a personal level – as in having Vietnamese to dinner at his home, saying he never thought he’d see the day. “It’s about time,” said Brig. Gen. Simcock, who also said that most people don’t know the military of today, and I agree wholeheartedly.

At some point Ann Mills-Griffiths, the League’s former Executive Director, now Chairman of the Board, made a pertinent statement: “All nations have national interests,” said Ann, whose brother’s crash site was recently found in waters off North Vietnam after 45 years. Although it has taken a long time to bring our Navy’s oceanographic survey ships into Vietnamese waters to search for MIAs like Ann’s brother, CMDR James Mills, USNR, the Vietnamese increasingly see our military as humanitarians and peacekeepers – the latter of which may have additional benefits as this rapidly developing country copes with growth pains and maritime border disputes with some of its neighbors.

Repeatedly we heard the phrase, “military to military,” which indicated to me that PACOM was taking a stronger lead in support of our MIAs from the Vietnam War, WW II and Korean War – all of which have ties to Pacific Nations within PACOM’s command. Mindful that JPAC reports to PACOM, which is a joint command, I felt that help was on the way to our loved ones left behind from the Vietnam War (WWII and Korean War families also have similar meetings in the coming months, and I’m sure that message applies to their loved ones, as well).

For the first time since the Vietnam War ended, I sensed that we had some leverage to finally be welcomed in Vietnam when putting boots on the ground and divers in the water. (I encourage anyone interested in our early humanitarian efforts in Vietnam to read,“No Longer Enemies, Not Yet Friends” by Frederick Downs—I read it twice). Help could not come at a better time. Said Verga: “Time is our enemy,” referring to the degradation of remains from the acidic soil in Southeast Asia. He and others also spoke of Vietnam’s eagerness to continue developing its infrastructure, which could limit recovery efforts if we do not get the job done soon.

JPACs Detachment 2 Casualty Resolution Specialist Ron Ward, who is based in Hanoi, said it was possible that we could finish the job in this generation – especially since Ward said that JPAC and its Vietnamese counterpart had agreed to using a modified Vietnamese Recovery Team (VRT) concept to help boost recovery efforts and save money (I’ll do a stand-alone blog on VRTs in the near future). But JPACs Commander, MG Stephen Tom, USAR, knows that all good intentions in this business require funding, and these are tough times. When questioned about how strongly he would fight for his bare-bones 2012 budget in view of having to resubmit it for reassessment: MG Tom said: “Hang on to your hats – I’m going back with the same numbers.”

DASD Newberry reiterated his support of increasing operations in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia saying that he didn’t think JPACs budget would be touched since the organization was in a growth mode. And DASD Newberry is one of the prime reasons for that growth, since his organization spearheaded a mandate directed at JPACs Central Identification Laboratory to increase its annual identifications to 200 by 2015. In order to do that, JPAC is building a new lab facility that will be completed in 2014, and is in a hiring frenzy for certain specialties – namely, forensic anthropologists.

To the uninitiated, 200 identifications per year may seem like a small figure, but retrieving remains subjected to years of acidic soil, horrific weather and scavengers is just the beginning of what JPAC teams, along with their Vietnamese counterparts, face when they investigate and excavate sites, believed to contain our MIAs. Granted, Vietnam War contributions to the magic number of annual identifications will be smaller than those from WWII and possibly even the Korean War, but after spending some time in Vietnam covering the process, I am amazed at what JPAC does on behalf of our loved ones in all past wartime locations.

Johnie Webb, Deputy to the Commander, said that JPAC uses a number of techniques to determine which sites are viable for Investigative Teams and/or Excavations, using a Case Selection Process. The more data Investigative Teams gather from witness accounts and material evidence, indicating that a site contains one of ours, the more likely that site will be placed on the excavation list. Currently, there are about 200 cases on the Vietnam War excavaton list, each of which has its own unique set of factors that help determine its order on the list.

JPAC uses Decision Matrix (DECMAT) Factors, applying a numeric weight to each factor, to determine a site’s placement on the list. The most heavily weighted factors are whether a site is in jeopardy of being disturbed or lost to development and whether a site has been left open because the excavation was not finished. Aside from the analytical approach, Webb says that weather patterns, site accessibility and host nation agreement and support are some of the other considerations. If remains are found in Vietnam, one of our anthropologists meets in country with a Vietnamese counterpart to ensure that remains, in fact, are those of a U.S. MIA, before repatriating them to JPACs Lab in Hawaii. And unlike in the past when families were not notified of remains until a site was closed, today Dr. Tom Holland, Director of JPACs Central Identification Laboratory (CIL), says that they try to notify a family after remains have been found within 30 days, even if the site is left open.

Unlike Vietnam which appears to have a fairly structured agreement with JPAC, Laos involves a different set of rules. That’s not to say recovery efforts in Laos have had little success; however, the challenge has been to develop an actual program that will lead investigators to MIA sites and/or to archival data about crashes that might have involved our people, according to Stony Beach’s Dustin Roses. Thus far, witnesses have offered the best hope; however, there is a new trend in which Lao veterans are writing their memoirs and books, which is expected to be an informational boon to people like Roses. Also, the country is experiencing an uptick in tourism, and this will offer another avenue for Stony Beach’s investigators.

In a future blog, I will discuss the on-again, off-again US-Russia Joint Commission (USRJC). At the beginning of the meeting it seemed as if the Commission was on life support; however, the Commission’s Chairman, Gen. Robert “Doc” Foglesong, USAF (Ret), headed back to the Hill and must have returned with some good news. Ann sounded cautiously optimistic towards the end of the meeting, saying that she thought the Commission would get funded this time around.

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