The last mission: Bringing MIAs home

The News TribuneMarch 11, 2014 

Welcome home, Capt. Ferguson. And rest in peace.

Douglas David Ferguson of Tacoma — lost for 44 years after his fighter-bomber went down in Vietnam — will soon receive a memorial service at Joint Base Lewis-McChord. His remains will be buried in Tacoma near the graves of his parents.

His return is a testament to an American obsession that most of the rest of the world probably sees as a little crazy.

Wars have catastrophic consequences, including all the anguish summed up in the words, “missing in action.” Pilots crash on remote mountainsides; sailors vanish into the sea; Marines and soldiers disappear in jungles and forests; high explosives leave bodies in fragments. The fog of war is never entirely dispelled, and the fate of some can never be known.

Yet the MIA label leaves parents, spouses and other survivors aching and wondering. Some cling to a tortured hope that the loved one might someday show up at the door again. With that hope comes a fear that the missing still suffers under unimaginable conditions.

To their credit, the armed forces are loathe to leave their fallen behind. Seventy years after World War II, Defense Department search teams are still turning up the remains of MIAs from that conflict. The department’s Joint Prisoner of War/Missing in Action Accounting Command sometimes even recovers the remains of World War I doughboys.

The overwhelming emphasis in recent decades has been on Vietnam MIAs, in part because of rumors — sometimes perpetuated by cruel scams — that American prisoners of war were never released from camps in Indochina after the end of the war.

The Defense Department has been aggressive in trying to determine the fate of MIAs; since the 1990s, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam have also provided substantial help. Relying on field archaeology, witness interviews, archives research and forensics, the military has identified more than 900 MIAs from the Vietnam War and has returned their remains to their families. Another 1,600-plus remain missing, but 600 or so are listed as confirmed dead but unrecoverable, often because they were lost at sea.

The attempt to determine the fate of every last one reflects a healthy belief in the individual dignity of men and women in uniform.

The effort is also a debt owed to survivors.

Douglas Ferguson’s sister, Sue Scott, has been active in working for the repatriation of MIAs since his disappearance in 1969. When she was informed that her brother’s remains had been identified, she said, “I had a real sense of peace.”

That may be a bittersweet ending, but in this kind of tragedy, it’s infinitely better than no ending at all.

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