POW/MIA Remembrance reminder of sacred mission

  • Published
  • By Christin Michaud
  • AFMAO Public Affairs
On a day when the nation pauses to remember all those who have been prisoners of war or missing in action, employees at the mortuary are reminded just how close to home the POW/MIA mission is.

The day is recognized as National POW/MIA Day.

A table in the atrium of the Charles C. Carson Center for Mortuary Affairs set to honor the more than 83,000 Americans missing from World War II, the Korean War, the Cold War, the Vietnam War and the 1991 Gulf War set the tone for the somber remembrance Sept. 19.

Col. Daniel Merry, Air Force Mortuary Affairs Operations commander, began the remembrance with opening remarks followed by a prayer from Chaplain (Maj.) Melvin Smith, AFMAO's senior chaplain.

A brief video of the POW/MIA Joint Accounting Command, Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, highlighted the work still being done until everyone is accounted for.

Danielle Van Orden from the Mortuary Affairs Division's past conflicts branch shared information on the Air Force personnel who were repatriated since last year.
This year 17 of 52 personnel aboard a C-124 that crashed in Alaska in 1952 were returned to their families, 12 of which were Airmen.

Seven more Airmen were identified from an incident in 1969 when an EC-47Q, call sign CAP72, carrying 10 Airmen was shot down over Laos.

Air Force Col. Francis J. McGouldrick and Col. Thomas W. Dugan, 35th Tactical Fighter Wing, were also lost in Laos when their B-57E Canberra aircraft collided with another aircraft while on a night strike mission Dec. 3, 1968. Both were accounted for on Sept. 28, 2013 and buried earlier this year.

Air Force Capt. Douglas D. Ferguson, a pilot, assigned to the 555th Tactical Fighter Squadron, was accounted for on March 5 and buried May 2 in Washington next to his parents. Ferguson went missing when the F-4D Phantom II aircraft he was flying crashed Dec. 30, 1969 while on an armed reconnaissance mission.

"It was very powerful," said David Sparks, an AFMAO chaplain, of Van Orden's account of those Air Force members who were repatriated.

The past conflicts branch works to notify families once remains are identified using Mitochondrial DNA matches.

Once a match is made, Van Orden is one of the few notification officers here who call the family with information they have been waiting for, in some cases, for more than 40 years. The staff here sets up travel to meet face-to-face with the families and present them the report and any personal effects available.

"We sometimes sit with families for hours," said Van Orden. "These families allow me to become part of their family."

She feels passionate about her role here and providing transparency and closure to families. Talking about the connection she feels with them brings tears to her eyes.

It's hard for her to put into words how honored she is to be a part of this sacred mission.

"I can't explain it," she said. "At the end of the day, it's about the families."

Although the team at AFMAO only works with Air Force families of those MIA, each branch of service was remembered as liaisons from the Army, Marine Corps and Navy each placed a hat on the POW/MIA table during the remembrance.

Petty Officer 1st Class Jennifer Heiselman, part of the Navy and Marine Corps liaison team here was reminded of all those who remain missing during the Remembrance Ceremony.

"You don't realize people are still out there missing," said Heiselman.

The remembrance concluded with the playing of Taps, a time-honored tribute to those who have paid the ultimate price.