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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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NOTE:  BLOG POSTS ARE NOT UPDATED, SO INFORMATION MAY HAVE CHANGED OVER TIME.

MIA Recoveries: Getting it Right Matters

Monday, November 28, 2011 @ 01:11 PM  posted by Elaine Zimmer Davis

Ron Ward and another JPAC investigator at crash site

JPACs Ron Ward (R) and his Vietnamese counterpart hiked to Jerry’s and Al’s crash site in 2009 to conduct an investigation, which led to reopening the case. You can see that the site is surrounded by jungle, making the work hazardous — especially in 100 degree temperatures. This an American and Vietnamese humanitarian effort at its best.

The world of locating, repatriating and identifying the remains of our MIAs may not be perfect,   whether we are talking about those still unaccounted for from the Vietnam War, Cold War, Korean War or WWII, but overall it’s a pretty good system.

I have learned a lot in recent years about the successes, challenges and overwhelming devotion required to bring home the remains of our MIAs from the Vietnam War, including those of my first husband, Capt. Jerry Zimmer, whose remains have yet to be found.  Here are a few insights that I have picked up along the way.

1. A thorough, accurate  (on- and off-site) investigation, performed by JPAC, is a must to determine the likelihood that it contains one or more of our MIAs and should be placed on JPACs Excavation List.  A number of people, ranging from Vietnamese farmers to veterans who have knowledge of an MIAs whereabouts, may be invovled in the investigation process.

2. It is estimated that approximately one-third of the remains found during excavations in Vietnam are likely to be identified as our MIAs, according to an unofficial study. No remains leave Vietnam until an anthropologist from JPACs Central Identification Laboratory (CIL) in Hawaii arrives in country to perform preliminary tests with a Vietnamese anthropologist. Together, they determine the genesis of the remains.

3. Most sites require more than one visit by an excavation team to properly vet for remains, especially when the site involves a jet crash with a debris field the size of a football field. I have been told that this accurately describes my first husband’s crash site.

4. Technological instruments known to pick up anomalies, such as remains, have not been successful thus far in Vietnam — a small country with a variety of archaeological anomalies inherent in the soil. With tight budgets, I am certain that no one is more eager than JPAC to have technology make the process of finding our MIAs in Vietnam easier and quicker.  They know better than most that time is running out.

5. Locating remains is challenging; however, unbeknownst to most people, the critical point in the overall recovery process is for the anthropologists at the CIL to identify a set of remains as belonging to one of our MIAs. Identifications are the key to closure for families and the final step in case closure for JPAC and related agencies. With a new mandate requiring JPAC to produce 200 identifications per year, by 2015, the numbers do count! ID contributions come from all former wartime locations, not just Vietnam.

6. Only recently has the Vietnamese government begun repatriating the remains of their own MIAs to families — namely, the focus  has been on NVA soldiers and Vietcong, much to the consternation of families from the south that fought against the Ho Chi Minh government.  However, some of the families in the south may find solace in the fact that their MIAs are technically home.  According to long-time recovery expert Bill Bell, the Vietnamese traditionally believe that if they die in Vietnam, their souls return to the soul of the country, which are the mountains and rivers. If they die outside of Vietnam, their souls wander until they are returned to Vietnam. I also have written about other versions of this superstition in the past.

7. Farmers in rural areas increasingly have come forth, giving JPAC or the Vietnamese government remains that in many cases have  later been identified as those of a U.S. MIA(s); however, American families with a loved one still missing are advised against buying remains in the “open” marketplace, where they risk the loss of money and disappointing results.

8. Vietnam  is still largely a poor country by American standards, so it is understandable that selling remains and scavenging metal from downed aircraft was a cottage industry for decades following our departure. So poor were many of the people in the rural areas that young, healthy men vied for two- to three-year contracts to work in USSR mines and factories, where the work was dangerous and the renumeration meager. Half of what the Vietnamese made went to the USSR to help pay off Vietnam’s war debt; a quarter went to Vietnam and a quarter went to the Vietnamese worker, according to Frederick Downs, author of “No Longer Enemies, Not Yet Friends.”

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