AFMAO commander escorts remains of two Airmen killed during the Vietnam War

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Kevin McAndrews
  • Air Force Mortuary Affairs Public Affairs
Col. John Devillier, Air Force Mortuary Affairs Operations commander, Dover Air Force Base, Del., rubs the names of Air Force Col. Wendell Keller and Air Force Capt. Virgil K. Meroney III at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, also called Punchbowl. Using the edge of a pencil, he carefully rubs over the name etched in granite onto sheets of white poster paper.

The colonel delivered those sheets of paper to the families of Meroney and Keller, who were killed in 1969 when the F-4 Phantom they were in crashed while carrying out a nighttime strike mission in Khammouan Province in Laos.

Devillier escorted their remains from Hawaii to Washington, D.C., last week for burial at Arlington National Cemetery Oct. 19.

"This was the most incredible mission I've had since being in the Air Force," Devillier said. "It was both moving and humbling to bring these Airmen back to their families and loved ones and to the nation they served."

A group burial representing Keller, 34, of Fargo, N.D., and Meroney, 25, of Fayetteville, Ark., was held in section 60 within the nation's hallowed grounds. Meroney was interred individually on June 9, in his hometown. Keller is to be interred in the U.S. Air Force Academy, Colorado Springs, Colo., at a future date.

Allen Cronin, AFMAO Past Conflicts branch chief, who orchestrated the commander's escort mission, said bringing back the remains of our fallen Airmen is the best job he's ever had.

"Honestly, I'd do this even if they didn't pay me," he said. "I've had so many remarkable experiences since being a part of this mission."

Devillier traveled to Hawaii with Chief Master Sgt. Sean Applegate, AFMAO's chief enlisted manager, to escort the remains from the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command which conducts global search, recovery and laboratory operations to identify unaccounted-for Americans from past conflicts, including World War II, Korea and Vietnam.

JPAC is located at Joint Base Pearl Harbor Hickam  and employs more than 400 joint military and civilian personnel.

"There are more than 83,000 Americans still missing from past conflicts," Devillier said. "Being a part of bringing them home is an important and rewarding mission for the AFMAO team."

The laboratory within of JPAC, referred to as the Central Identification Laboratory, is the largest and most diverse forensic skeletal laboratory in the world.

"We received an orientation briefing and tour of JPAC," said the commander. "The work they do around the world is amazing. I don't think a lot of people realize the incredible effort we make to honor these servicemen and women who gave all for their country."

Search for the remains of Meroney and Keller began in 1994 until 2011 because when their fighter went down, no parachutes were seen and heavy enemy presence in the area prevented recovery efforts.

Several investigations and excavations of the crash site were conducted. The teams located human remains, military equipment, a military identification card and aircraft wreckage, including an engine data plate and radio call-sign plate. Analysts evaluated the material evidence and the accounts of more than 40 eyewitnesses to confirm the information correlated with the crew's loss location.

To identify the remains, scientists from JPAC use circumstantial evidence, forensic identification tools including DNA dental and radiograph comparisons.

Today, more than 980 remains have been recovered from Vietnam, but 1,655 Americans remain unaccounted for. The United States continues to work closely with the governments of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia to recover Americans lost during the Vietnam War.

There are still 523 Airmen from the war in Southwest Asia whose remains have yet to be recovered, identified and returned to their families.

This year alone, thirteen Airmen missing in action have been identified for repatriation. Meroney and Keller are two of the 13.