Pentagon lays fallen Vietnam soldiers to rest

Melissa Quinn Contributor
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They’ll move heaven and earth to find you.

It was the promise made to former Air Force Sergeant and radio deejay Adrian Cronauer when he first entered basic training at the height of the Vietnam War in the 1960s. And more than 45 years later, it is a promise the Pentagon has vowed to see through as officials work to identify the remains of servicemen found behind enemy lines – bringing families closure and giving unsung heroes a proper burial on American soil.

On Monday, six soldiers killed in Laos during the Vietnam War received a hero’s burial with full military honors at Arlington National Ceremony after their remains were located in the southern part of the country as part of an ongoing investigation that spanned more than 15 years. Six neatly folded flags were handed to family members and one casket was lowered into the ground.

The servicemen — Air Force Col. Joseph Christiano of Rochester, N.Y.; Col. Derrell B. Jeffords of Florence, S.C.; Lt. Col. Dennis L. Eilers of Cedar Rapids, Iowa; Chief Master Sgt. William K. Colwell of Glen Cove, N.Y.; Chief Master Sgt. Arden K. Hassenger of Lebanon, Ore.; and Chief Master Sgt. Larry C. Thornton of Idaho Falls, Idaho — were killed when their AC-47D crash landed on Christmas Eve 45 years ago.

The gunship sent out a mayday call, but all contact with the crew was lost not long after. A two-day search turned up unsuccessful, until a local man found wreckage from the crash in a field while farming in 1995.

“Most people learn about their father by experiencing them. I had to consciously make the effort to put the picture of my father together myself,” Jeffrey Christiano, who was only 2-years-old when his father’s plane went down, told the Washington Post at the memorial. “Today’s the day he dies, for me.”

Since mid-June, the Pentagon has identified more than ten servicemen who were killed in World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War, but more than 80,000 are still missing.

“We’ll do everything humanly possible to return you to us,” Cronauer, whose life was the basis for the film “Good Morning, Vietnam,” told The Daily Caller. “That is a promise your government makes to you.”

According to their website, the Defense Prisoner of War/Missing in Action Personnel Office was created by Congress in 1993 to oversee and manage POW and MIA issues, “keeping the promise” to “recover and account for all missing soldiers.” For more than 15 years, the DPMO has worked with leaders from former enemy-countries to locate and excavate areas where planes were downed, ships were sunk and lives were lost.

In the beginning, the DPMO focused on bringing home soldiers lost in the Vietnam War, but has since expanded to include serviceman from WWII, the Korean War, the Cold War and the first Gulf War, Cronauer said.

With advances in technology, archaeologists with the DPMO use DNA and dental records to identify remains, but first rely on artifacts and belongings to locate sites where remains could potentially be.

Dog tags and the soles of boots are often found during excavations. Shards of metal from parachute harnesses, bits of helmets and flight suits form a puzzle, leading archaeologists with the DPMO to crash sites, and, ultimately, DNA analysis and identifications.

“That’s what we do day after day, week and week,” Cronauer, who worked at DPMO for eight years before retiring in 2010, said. “We try to keep the promise.”

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