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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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REPATRIATION CEREMONY — BRINGING THEM HOME

Thursday, October 17, 2013 @ 03:10 PM  posted by Elaine Zimmer Davis
Participants in the Repatriation Ceremony included (Center) LTC Julian Tran, Commander of JPACs Detachment 2 in Hanoi, and U.S. Consul General Rena Bitter, from Ho Chi Minh City. Both are flanked by members of the Vietnam Office for Seeking Missing Persons.  The transfer of remains was about to take place.

Participants in a recent Repatriation Ceremony, held at Da Nang Airport,  included (Center) LTC Julian Tran, Commander of JPACs Detachment 2 in Hanoi, and U.S. Consul General Rena Bitter, from Ho Chi Minh City. Both are flanked by members of the Vietnam Office for Seeking Missing Persons. The transfer of remains was about to take place.

If you follow JPACs repatriation efforts, leading to identifications of MIAs from past wars, then you already know that there are many ceremonies for fallen heroes, finally home from former battlefields around the world.   

I was privileged to attend a recent MIA Repatriation Ceremony that highlighted the first leg of their journey home from Vietnam.  Here is a look at how JPACs Detachment 2 in Hanoi conducts this special send-off. 

Our Unknowns are now in the hands of the U.S. military -- a beautiful sight.

The remains of what JPAC hopes will be identified as our MIAs are now in the hands of the U.S. military — a beautiful sight.

I arrived in country in early September 2013, at the conclusion of JPACs quarterly field operations.  I had an opportunity to observe several teams, consisting primarily of military and civil service specialists on their way back to Hickam AFB in Hawaii.  They were among an approximate 100 boots-on-the-ground in the Central Highlands that had spent nearly a month investigating and excavating several sites with the hope of repatriating as many of our Vietnam War MIAs as possible to the United States.

Their successful efforts were the reason for the Repatriation Ceremony that I was about to observe.   And although I was looking at three small wooden boxes, lined in red velvet, containing unidentified remains that hopefully belonged to  American MIAs,  I knew they did not come from the crash site of my first husband, Capt Jerry Zimmer and his radar intercept officer, 1st Lt Al Graf, whose site was excavated during those same quarterly field operations.

Thumbs Up for JPAC!

Thumbs Up for JPAC!

As the former wife of an MIA still unaccounted-for, I also knew that three families, who had been waiting decades for a father, son or brother to come home, might soon have closure.  Earlier on the day of the ceremony, a preliminary test, conducted jointly by a JPAC anthropologist and another from the Vietnamese side, determined that the remains were not Vietnamese, which cleared the way for them to leave Vietnam.

It is important to note that the Vietnamese retain the remains after the test, until the handover takes place at the Repatriation Ceremony, which often follows on the same day, as was the case during my visit, or soon thereafter.  Also, this test does not determine the identification of the remains, which is conducted later in JPACs Central Identification Laboratory at Hickam.

Although Repatriation Ceremonies can take place at different airports in Vietnam, they usually are performed in the area where the majority of field operations are conducted during a particular quarter.  I was truly honored to attend the Repatriation Ceremony, held on the tarmac at Da Nang International Airport – a location that was home to many Marine and Air Force fixed wing squadrons during the Vietnam War, including Jerry’s F-4 squadron, VMFA-542.  But instead of looking up at an F-4, I was focused on a large transport aircraft that would soon be filled with our military, escorting the unidentified remains back to the U.S. — possibly after being MIA for four decades in Southeast Asia.

This one speaks for itself!

This one speaks for itself!

Despite the 90+ degree heat that bounced off the tarmac and left me looking and feeling like I’d run a marathon in a sweat suit, it was a humbling experience to be among the large gathering of team members, invited guests, diplomats, Vietnamese officials and JPAC’s military leadership and civil service employees from Detachment 2 in Hanoi.

JPACs Det 2 were well-represented by Ron Ward, Kelly Ray, Buddy Newell.

JPACs Det 2 was well-represented by Ron Ward, Kelly Ray, Buddy Newell and many others.

Consul General Rena  Bitter and LTC Julian Tran had arrived in-country recently and both were attending their first Repatriation Ceremony.  We hope there will be many to come!

Consul General Rena Bitter and LTC Julian Tran arrived in-country recently and both were attending their first Repatriation Ceremony with hopefully many more to come.

The team that worked on Jerry's and Al's site -- great people!

The team leaders that worked on Jerry’s and Al’s site — great people!

 

Since this was LTC Julian Tran’s first Repatriation Ceremony as JPAC Commander of Det 2, it was heartwarming to see him begin his tour on a successful note.  Born in Vietnam, LTC Tran left as a teenager, traveling by foot and encountering great danger along the way, but ultimately became an American citizen and an Army officer.  Tran’s goal during his two-year tour was clear:  Bring them home, he told me, without blinking an eye. Flanked by U.S. Consul General Rena Bitter, newly arrived in Vietnam, attending her first Repatriation Ceremony, Tran was also accompanied by officials from the Vietnam Office for Seeking Missing Persons (VNOSMP).   With assistance from a joint US military honor guard, the handover between the Vietnamese and Americans was brief but very dignified, as shown in the attached photos.  I was proud to be an American and hoped that Jerry knew I was there for him, as well. 

Post Script:  As I was preparing to leave at the conclusion of the ceremony, one of the Vietnamese officials that had participated in the handover ran over to shake my hand.  Since we had a language problem, I asked Casualty Resolution Specialist Ron Ward to translate, and he told me that the Vietnamese Colonel remembered me from our visit to Jerry’s crash site in May, 2012.

When the Americans and Vietnamese — which included the Colonel — were traveling to various sites last year, I was allowed to accompany them to Jerry’s and Al’s site.  This wonderful opportunity enabled me to write about the experience and hopefully to give readers insight into the unbelievable challenges involved in repatriating our loved ones.   Watching the three sets of remains being transferred to an American aircraft and then seeing the Colonel again, I found myself reflecting on the day of last year’s visit to Jerry’s crash site and was reminded of what it took to make this day’s Repatriation Ceremony happen.

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