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Leave no one behind

America’s ongoing search for its missing heroes

American soldiers join South Vietnamese ground troops to advance in an attack on a Viet Cong camp during the Vietnam War. Horst Faas/AP

Leave no one behind
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David Green was still contemplating the men’s Bible study he’d just left as he walked through his back door that Wednesday morning. Hanging his set of jangling keys against the wall, the 75-year-old retired postal worker glanced toward the answering machine waiting in the corner. Southern California sunlight drenched the room, making it hard to tell, but yes, the button was blinking. Green moved to press “play.” He was unprepared for the words that spilled through the speaker.

“I have some information about your brother, Thomas, I know you’ll be interested in hearing.”

The recording stopped Green in his tracks. More than 50 Augusts had come and gone since he last saw his kid brother, and no one expected August 2022 to be any different. “A scam?” Green wondered, rubbing his gray goatee. He dropped into a recliner and pushed “play” again.

The Vietnam War left a gaping hole in the Green household. Thomas, 19, was among the 2,641 American servicemen listed from that conflict as missing or killed in action (MIA/KIA), bodies not recovered. Today, more than half are still unaccounted for. That scammers would try to profit from this unusual strain of grief is almost unthinkable, but they do, promising details about disappearances for a price. But this caller sounded different. Official. When Green’s wife, Kassie, arrived saying she’d gotten the same message, he allowed himself a tinge of hope. Maybe it was true. Maybe, just maybe, Thomas’ body had been found at last.

Propelled by scientific advancements, the military’s recovery efforts have ramped up in recent years, especially in Vietnam. But a half century after the Paris Peace Accords ended the war, some might wonder if the extensive—and expensive—work is worth it, even as families like the Greens get exciting news: Your loved one’s remains are finally coming home.

Thomas Green in 1971

Thomas Green in 1971 Handout

IN 1971, THE WORLD WAS CHANGING, and changing fast. Big names like Nasdaq, Amtrak, and Federal Express debuted, and the Soviet Union launched the first space station into orbit. President Richard Nixon, meanwhile, was busy promising a war-weary America he would withdraw troops from Vietnam. He also signed the 26th Amendment. That meant dark-eyed trombonist Thomas Green and the rest of the nation’s 18-year-olds could vote, quelling the “old enough to fight, old enough to vote” arguments. For Green, though, signing Army enlistment papers that spring was the seminal event, one that set the rest of his 1971 falling like a row of dominoes. High school graduation, basic training, then months at Alabama’s Fort Rucker for door gunner school and ­helicopter mechanics training. Along the way, Thomas managed to swing a down payment on an engagement ring at the post exchange. Pretty Debby Herrington was pining away for him back home in Ramona, Calif., a rural mountain town about 45 minutes northeast of San Diego. Thomas and Debby had plans to serve together on a mission field.

Thomas was one of more than 94,000 Army inductees that year, and when he came home in the fall to celebrate his birthday, the Green family, knowing Vietnam was his next stop, made the most of it. Mom Nathalie baked Thomas’ favorite cake, and his father, Walter, took the family to Disneyland. But when his parents drove Thomas to the San Diego airport on Sept. 15 to say their goodbyes, Debby stayed in the back seat, crying inconsolably. She had a gut feeling she’d never see her fiancé again.

Just six weeks later, as the rumblings of a monsoon moved across the South China Sea, Thomas boarded a CH-47B Chinook helicopter in Tuy Hoa, Vietnam. He was on a supply mission bound for the Army port ­facility Cam Ranh Bay. The chopper never arrived.

David, the oldest of the four Green brothers, was working at the post office in Ramona when he turned and saw an Army officer coming through the door. “Almost immediately I realized what that meant,” he remembers.

Green’s father also worked at the post office, but he wasn’t there that Saturday. David took the officers to his parents’ home, and “that’s when they told the folks that he was missing in action.” Search-and-rescue teams quickly recovered the remains of four of the 10 soldiers involved in the over-water crash. They found nothing belonging to “Green Green,” as one crusty ammunition officer had taken to calling the young private. The next month, officials declared Thomas and the five other missing crew members killed in action, although their bodies were not recovered. His parents, David said, were never the same.

GETTING DAVID AND HIS BROTHER MICHAEL to talk about that time is hard. But here at the Ramona Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) building, today is a day for talking—even if the day is a shade out of kilter. It’s cold and rainy, and spurts of graupel, a soft hail, are landing on surprised windshields and pedestrians alike. Inside Post 3783, though, a crockpot of sloppy joe meat is cooking in the corner, and a few veterans are over at the bar watching The Price Is Right. A nice guy named Andy gives me a post T-shirt. He and the other VFW members are excited their hometown hero, Thomas Green, will finally be buried tomorrow.

“His mother was always at the Memorial Day celebrations,” Frances Hine tells me, twisting around in her seat at the bar. Her dark hair is pulled back with a clip. “It was always very sad to see her sitting there, because she was in tears. And when she got the flowers, I think we all cried. She went every year until she passed away.”

“She came to the Gold Star Mothers celebrations, too,” Hine’s husband John interjects. He’s wearing a cowboy hat and drinking something from a Mason jar. “Over the years we’ve tried to remember Thomas, and now this is the final mile,” the former post commander says, nodding his head. “We didn’t really expect to get a chance to bury him here.”

No one did. Not really. Members of the Green family are sitting around tables near the window, quietly flipping through an identification report given to them by the Department of Defense. It contains pages and pages of details about the sub-sea search for Thomas’ remains, as well as photos of items recovered in the wreckage. The pilots’ seats. A 1959 penny. A pair of broken glasses. In another section of the report, a high-school photo of Thomas smiling, buttoned up in a suit and tie. A few pages over, a photo of his femur—the key find—laid against a black background and a ruler. An arrow points out a “perimortem fracture” and “slight weathering” to the margins.

David and Michael seem happy the search is over, but they are subdued. The Green brothers purposefully kept private the news of the recovery of Thomas’ remains, the transfer from the airplane, his funeral, and just about everything else—even meeting the military escort that brought Thomas home, something Michael admits “was like a scene straight out of Taking Chance.” The truth is, the Greens are only willing to talk to me because, in their eyes, I have special credentials. His name was Capt. Danny Day Entrican.

Danny Day Entrican

Danny Day Entrican Handout

I GREW UP IN THE SHADOW OF A COUSIN who went missing in Vietnam. At family gatherings, relatives spoke his name in whispers, followed by a reverent hush. I was only 5 when a firefight near the Laos border overwhelmed Danny’s special ops team. To me, he was a guy with my dad’s ears, a face in faded photographs from a time I knew little about.

These days my cousin’s image looms large on murals at the VFW near where I live—where he lived. All of Danny’s immediate family members have died. His ­parents, his sisters, his brother. They spent decades ­wondering what happened to Danny. For all those years, they maintained expectant contact with military officials. They made calls and inquiries. They granted interviews and went to wreath layings. Some lived long enough to see local veterans name the Brookhaven, Miss., VFW post in Danny’s honor.

Now, I’m the primary point of contact in the community. Me, the third cousin who never even knew Danny. I get updates from officials and make speeches downtown. I also field telephone calls and emails from strangers who want to know what happened to Danny. They live in Arizona and Rhode Island and Georgia, and they know Danny’s name because it’s inscribed on bracelets they wore for years then tucked away, ­forgotten, in dresser drawers. Between 1970 and 1976, the student organization Voices in Vital America distributed some 5 million of these POW/MIA bracelets. Wearers vowed to leave them on until the soldier named on the bracelet, or their remains, returned to the United States. One woman wrote this remembrance to Danny regarding hers: “I have worn your MIA bracelet faithfully since 1972. People ask me what that is on my bracelet, and I share with them what little I know. That you made the Vietnam War a reality to me. I remember watching the guys come home and praying one of them was you and searching the lists hoping your name would be there, but it never was.”

No, it never was.

Kelly McKeague (left) speaks with guests at the DPAA’s family member update in Dallas.

Kelly McKeague (left) speaks with guests at the DPAA’s family member update in Dallas. Staff Sgt. Jonathan McElderry/U.S. Air Force/DPAA

IN 1985, VIETNAM HANDED OVER CRATES containing the remains of 26 U.S. soldiers. That, combined with reports of live sightings, fueled suspicions that soldiers might have been left behind alive after the U.S. exit. Although no credible information surfaced, stories of MIA rescues made their way into movies, and into the thoughts of waiting families like the Greens and the Entricans.

By 1994, the push to solve the mystery of missing U.S. soldiers led President Bill Clinton to lift a trade embargo that had been in place since the fall of Saigon. A decision the next year to normalize relations with Vietnam paved the way for greater access in what has become a consuming mission for the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA). Its 2023 budget estimates, totaling more than $150 million, cover all conflicts but elevate one goal: fullest possible accounting for Vietnam losses.

Kelly McKeague directs that agency. The retired Air Force major general says Vietnam is the operational priority because it’s the conflict they know the most about. “Our people have been there for decades, uncovering the information needed to get us in the general vicinity of remains. World War II, on the other hand, is a relatively new conflict for the DPAA—just since 2010. So our researchers and historians have to build out cases in order to get to an excavation.”

More than 80,000 troops from U.S. wars are listed as unaccounted for. That’s why McKeague and his team of ­analysts, medical examiners, and forensic scientists are at work in 45 countries all over the world. It’s also why they’re in Dallas for a March meeting at the Marriott Quorum.

It’s Saturday morning, and attendees of the DPAA’s regional family update are filing into the Grand Ballroom. McKeague stands at the front, describing MIA/POW recovery efforts as a “sacred mission” and a “moral imperative.” He is tall and intense. Believable. The audience claps after he quotes Calvin Coolidge, who in 1920 cautioned that “the nation which forgets its defenders will itself be forgotten.”

But commanding as he is, McKeague is not the main draw. The most anticipated session on the schedule starts at 9:30, and it’s called the Remembrance Ceremony. Uniformed officers move throughout the room, offering attendees microphones and the opportunity to speak.

A woman named Debbie is one of the first to address the group. Her uncle was a Marine whose body is believed to lie underwater in the Pacific Theater. “His death,” she notes, “made my father a twinless twin for 50 of his 70 years.”

A younger man named John stands up on behalf of his dad, who’s sitting beside him, weeping. “He grew up without a father,” John emphasizes, gesturing toward his dad. “My grandfather was shot down, captured, and ­presumed to be executed on Aug. 6, 1952.”

A table over, a man praises his Uncle Art, a 17-year-old who died in the first wave of fighting at the Battle of Tarawa during World War II. “I’m blind now, but I’ll never forget the photograph of him in his uniform. It’s blazed in my memory. We were all reared to revere Uncle Art.”

The stories continue for more than an hour.

Finally, a woman at the front gives a report that gets everyone’s attention. “I’ve been coming to these events for a long time,” she informs the crowd, her face crinkling into a wide grin. “Last year, they found my dad’s dog tags.” The room breaks into applause.

They’re a small thing, military-issued dog tags. But here, small things matter a whole lot.

The Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency conducts updates like the one in Dallas several times a year. They’re always held in major cities, and MIA family members who live within a 350-mile radius are invited to come to the sessions, as well as a one-on-one briefing regarding their loved one. Mine starts a little before noon.

Case manager William Newell begins by making sure I have a copy of Danny’s report, 14 pages of paragraphs rife with military acronyms, accompanied by a full-color map pinpointing where he was last seen. Newell, who has spent decades in Vietnam, calls Danny’s a “mature case.” That’s why it’s chock-full of details, from the time Danny’s team encountered hostile forces (approximately 1430 hours—or 2:30 in the afternoon—on 17 May 1971) to hearsay evidence involving a body hidden near the probable ambush area.

But it’s the first page that really gets my attention. It plots out attempts to rescue Danny in the hours just ­following the skirmish. Three attempted extractions turned away by enemy fire, with damaged helicopters lost or abandoned. A fourth helicopter shot down with the loss of two of its crew.

I never knew that.

I didn’t know about Danny’s 1978 presumptive finding of death, either.

It’s a lot to process. There’s information obtained from a POW debriefing in 1973. And more from a joint field activity in 1990 and a skirmish line search in 1993. In 1994, some recovered remains of interest turned out to be of Asian descent. Reports surfaced in 2012 about a villager in possession of an Army helmet. And as recently as 2020, the agency conducted interviews with 10 Vietnamese veterans in the Huong Hoa District, where the loss occurred.

The conclusion on page 13 of Danny’s report indicates the site of his incident in a “remote and largely unpopulated area” severely hampered advances in the case, despite 19 investigations. What really happened to Danny in 1971—the same year Thomas Green went missing—is a mystery. One thing is for sure. No information gathered in the 52 years since indicates he survived.

U.S. Navy Chief Petty Officer Paul Bellanca (left) and U.S. Air Force Master Sgt. Paul Dunbar, on assignment with the DPAA, screen dirt in Vietnam in search of three service members who went missing in 1968.

U.S. Navy Chief Petty Officer Paul Bellanca (left) and U.S. Air Force Master Sgt. Paul Dunbar, on assignment with the DPAA, screen dirt in Vietnam in search of three service members who went missing in 1968. Sgt. Jacqueline Clifford/U.S. Marine Corps/DPAA

DURING THE WAR, the dense Vietnamese jungle—hot, humid, and darkened by a thick, triple canopy—proved problematic to soldiers like Danny. Those same conditions frustrate attempts to locate remains. Vegetation and undergrowth. Soil with the pH of a lemon, degrading human bones.

The search for MIA/POW remains is cold-case investigative work. DPAA team members first dig through U.S. military records and those belonging to our onetime enemies. Then they conduct interviews with aging veterans and civilians from both sides, ­mining their memories of battles, crashes, sightings, and burials. The right information from one of those meetings might lead to further study of a rice paddy or an ocean bed. Clues can be as seemingly unimpor­tant as a rusted fan blade. An on-site excavation is ordered if there’s enough evidence to warrant one.

In the best-case scenario, possible remains are found. Scientists then take over, determining whether or not the material is human. If things progress, they’ll try to make a match using dental records, X-rays, or the ever-expanding repository of DNA samples managed by the Armed Forces Medical Examiner System. Approximately 83 ­percent of Vietnam War MIAs have at least one family reference sample on file for DNA comparisons.

Still, Director McKeague says time is his agency’s worst enemy. “In the case of Vietnam, firsthand witnesses are passing away, and urbanization means we can lose sites forever as dams and reservoirs are built.”

Last year the DPAA successfully accounted for 166 missing troops. Simple division of the agency’s 2022 budget—more than $130 million—would mean each of those cases cost about $783,000 to close. But DPAA ­public affairs specialist Ashley Wright says that’s not an accurate measure. “Many of the cases take years to close and our budget covers everything from disinterment to civilian paychecks. You can’t put a price on fulfilling the nation’s promise to never leave an American behind. What we do, and the extent to which we do it, is uniquely American.”

The DPAA’s 2024 budget estimate—right at $196 million—reflects a substantial increase. And recovery work isn’t just expensive. It can be dangerous. In 2001, a combined team of 16 American and Vietnamese officials died when their helicopter crashed into a mountain in Quang Binh province. They were scouting sites that might contain MIA remains.

So why do it? The simple answer is Title 10 of the United States Code. The Department of Defense is responsible for accounting for missing persons from past conflicts and their remains.

For a longer answer, I ask Ben Johnson, commander of the VFW post named in honor of my cousin. “It plays into the morale of every soldier, sailor, and airman,” the Annapolis grad and Navy retiree explains. “They want to know that you’re going to take care of their remains, and by taking care of their remains, you’re taking care of the family. So there’s closure.”

An honor guard member offers condolences to Michael and David Green at the service for their brother Thomas.

An honor guard member offers condolences to Michael and David Green at the service for their brother Thomas. Photo by Kim Henderson

AS THE GREEN BROTHERS UNDERSTAND IT, bad weather is to blame for the Chinook crash that took Thomas’ life. So it seems almost fitting that a slight rain is falling on the day his remains are finally laid to rest. Clouds blanket the skies, and California poppies blanket the sides of the mountains watching over Nuevo Memory Gardens. Members of the Green family quietly take their places under the funeral tent. Debby Herrington sits behind them. She’s Debby Hull now, a Washington widow who kept all the letters Thomas sent her. She even kept three letters she sent to him that were returned to her, unopened, in November 1971.

Nearby, ROTC members from Ramona High School, Thomas’ alma mater, are standing in formation, their faces set against the mist. A ­bagpiper is getting wet, too, as well as a scattering of ­veterans from the Patriot Guard Riders. Suddenly the sound of rifle volleys pierces the air. Thomas has no ­casket, so there’s no place to drape an American flag. Instead, two men from the honor guard ceremonially unfold, then refold, a flag to present to his brothers.

A hymn follows, and I can hear David Green above the others, singing every verse of “Abide With Me.”

“Heav’n’s morning breaks, and earth’s vain shadows flee. In life, in death, O Lord, abide with me.”

David says Thomas Green was a professing Christian, and knowing that has brought the family comfort through the years. Although the absence of physical remains was hard, it did not leave them hopeless. “Recovering a body is a physical thing, and that’s important for us here on earth,” he acknowledges. “But right away when he was killed, we knew he was in heaven. One day, we’ll all be reunited.”

—This story has been corrected to reflect that President Richard Nixon ceremonially signed the 26th Amendment as a witness.

Kim Henderson

Kim is a World Journalism Institute graduate and senior writer for WORLD. During her career as a homeschool mom, she worked as a freelance writer. Kim resides in Mississippi with her family.



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