It was 10 years ago today, November 28 that my brother’s remains were “officially” declared identified. He had been listed as Missing in Action, Vietnam, since 10 January 1970. “Officially” meaning that even though the DNA match had been a success, and all reports had been completed, Mom (Primary Next of Kin) still had to accept the findings by signing the documents presented to her this day in 2006. A very long 36 years searching for answers.
It had also been a very long 2006. We (Mom, my sister, and me) had known [unofficially] of his remains being identified since February when I attended the regional POW/MIA Family Update in Savannah, Georgia that year. The Army representative for Herby’s case couldn’t give me Herby’s name then, but confirmed “two crew members had been identified.”
The Department of POW/MIA Office (DPMO) still had more work to be done before they could officially release his name to us (a satellite photograph had to be taken of the location they assumed the helicopter to be and they had to meet with the other crew member’s family). Because of this he strongly advised that we not announce our “good news” until it was official. He smiled though, telling me what to expect in the coming months. I can’t tell you enough how my heart was leaping for joy, yet crying like a baby for the bittersweet heartache I was feeling that beautiful day. And, I couldn’t tell anyone! I was afraid I’d jinx the reports if I did tell someone. I couldn’t help it, I did tell my best friend who I was visiting later that day. I knew she’d keep our secret.
Here we were though, nine months later, being presented the analysis results. Finally, getting the story of what took place over the past 37 years of searching for Herby.
Mom was anxious. I was anxious, and so was Dan, on this most significant Tuesday morning. Paul Bethke, Director of the Department of POW/MIA Office (now the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency) at the Pentagon, arrived mid morning to present the findings that would close Case #1547. Major Kenneth Gambles, our new assigned Casualty Officer, was with him. It was a day I will forever hold dear, always.
After introductions and greetings we set down at the kitchen table to go page by page through the thick booklet of documents, reports, and findings. Paul went through each section, explaining in detail the scenarios of what they believed happened, remains repatriation, who was interviewed, the witness stories, where the helicopter was presumed to be (it’s location still not confirmed) in the journey of identifying his remains.
This session lasted just over four hours. That’s right, over four hours we listened, asked questions, taking only one break. Talk about information overload, yet we were glued to every word Mr. Bethke spoke, every page he flipped. Our eyes wide open, we focused to absorb everything he said. At this time, remains consisted of one tooth in which DNA (provided by myself and my sister) matched without a doubt to Herby. It was amazing. [In 2011, five additional teeth, and two bone shards were identified.)
At the end of the session, Paul picked up a velvet pouch he had placed on the table at the beginning of the briefing. He opened the pouch, leaned toward Mom telling her, “this is for you Mrs. Crosby,” as he pulled out a dog tag. Not only had the tooth been identified, but the dog tag Herby wore that tragic day, was also among his remains. As he handed the dog tag to Mom, my heart broke again. She took it, looked it over closely, rubbing it back and forth with her fingers as if it were gold. It was. After what seemed endless time, she lifted her head, looked at Paul and said, “this is all I have left of my son,” as she closed her hand around the dog tag pulling it to her heart. I can still see the emotion in her face. Tears were streaming down my face, and everyone else at the table.
Paul went on to tell us of burial options. Burial? We had not even thought of that. One option was that Herby could be buried in Arlington National Cemetery with full military honors. Being the Primary Next of Kin, Mom had final decision to make for this too.
Since the time Herby had been declared dead in November 1974, we had a grave marker for him in the family plot at Friendship Memorial Gardens in Donalsonville, Georgia. We just assumed if he ever returned that’s where he would be buried. We never gave up hope that he would come home alive, and not need that spot.
However, when the Arlington option was given, Mom thought that would be the appropriate final resting place for her son. She knew Dad would be proud to know his son would be in our country’s most hallowed, sacred cemetery. Herby deserved this honor. So it was determined then that’s where he would be buried. We chose a funeral date as close to Herby’s birthday (traditional Memorial Day) for the following year.
The Press Release from the Department of Defense was published 19 December 2006. I had no idea the impact that would follow. Lives would once again change forever. We could finally announce Herby was finally coming home after 37 years.
Our family was one of the lucky ones, a success story for the National League of POW/MIA Families. I know, without a doubt, that if not for this League, my brother’s remains would have never been repatriated and finally identified. The League is the one group that has stood their ground, while tirelessly, diligently working with the government, in their mission to account for every Vietnam POW and MIA. I remain a member of this very important organization.
I have been blessed beyond words by the affection and reach my brother had with his comrades [especially the Rattlers and Firebirds] throughout his Army life, including his Missing In Action years.
This day in 2006 was so emotional, so bittersweet for not only me, but for all our family and friends. Herby was on his way home. I could finally shout it from the rooftop! “Herby is coming home. Thank you, God. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.”