Past Conflicts Branch: Beyond the walls of our edifice

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Jayden Ford
  • Air Force Mortuary Affairs Operations

At Air Force Mortuary Affairs Operations, there are a multitude of divisions and branches that all complete vital missions ensuring the unit provides dignity, honor and respect to our fallen, and care, service and support to their families.

AFMAO’s past conflicts branch serves as the face of our unit’s care for those missing in action or killed in action but have not been recovered by providing support to families as they await the identification of their loved one’s remains.

Their work has multiple facets and spans far beyond AFMAO’s walls. While awaiting identification, they serve as the liaisons between families and those organizations that are actively searching for remains – providing periodic updates to families across the globe. After an identification has been made, they guide families through making funeral or memorial service arrangements and routinely check in to ensure they are continuously providing unparalleled care.

“We have met with many family members that have talked about how lonely and emotionally draining waiting for answers can be,” said Electa Thompkins, AFMAO past conflicts branch liaison. “Our mission is to assure them that we are here for them now and will always be here for whatever they need.”

The core of the past conflicts branch’s mission was seen recently with the identification of Lt. Col. Ernest DeSoto, who’s case was supported by Allen Cronin, AFMAO past conflicts branch liaison, and Capt. Fredrick Hall, who’s case was supported by Thompkins, both of whom lost their lives around the same timeframe during the Vietnam War.

Thompkins oversaw the Hall family's case and said after years of waiting for answers, the family was ecstatic at the news of the identification of his remains as they had all but lost hope that their missing loved one would be recovered.

“It was such a gift to be able to tell them that we actually found their loved one,” Thompkins said. “After 54 years, his wife was able to have her whole community come together, with over 500 people from two different states attending the ceremony. It was such an honorable thing and just seeing the support and the love for her loved one was just overwhelming for all involved.”

Having spent years networking with the Hall family as they awaited the location and identification of their loved one, Thompkins said she was embraced as a member of the family.

“Hall’s wife calls me her one and only, she doesn't even call me by my name anymore,” said Thompkins. “That's how close we get with these family members. There's no day and time that they cannot call, and we are in tune with these family members all the time. That’s the level of care that we give to every one of our families.”

The past conflicts team’s mission would not be possible without the help of multiple other agencies across the Department of Defense, including Air Force Personnel Center and the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency.

“Once there is an identification, that provides reassurance to these families who have been waiting sometimes for years,” said Sandra Kolb, AFPC missing person branch chief. “They may be few and far between, but we collectively strive to get families' answers and bring our service members home.”

Thompkins said it takes a special kind of person to work with families of our fallen.

“You have to have a servant mentality and there has to be something within you that drives you to this,” Thompkins said. “It has to be a genuine thing, and they will gravitate to you if they know that you are truly there for them.”

As the team continuously provides care, service and support to these families, Thompkins said she wants anyone she encounters through her work to know that AFMAO and its mission partners are there for them whenever they need.

“My wish is that the families hold out hope because they're looking for them and our government has never stopped,” Thompkins said. “If you reach out to us, we're here to help and support no matter how small or great it is. All our organizations are here to assist anytime and anywhere.”