(WWJ) - The month of May ends on a somber note as the nation reflects and remembers those who have died while serving in the United States Armed Forces. But this Memorial Day there will be no folded flags nor gravesites to visit for the families of 81,600 Americans still missing from wars dating back to World War II.
There are only questions: What happened? Where are they? When will they come home?
"It is a wound that does not close with the passing of time," then President Ronald Reagan said to the annual National League of Families meeting on July 29, 1988. "For you, the families of MIAs and POWs unaccounted for, the Vietnam War is not over and will not end. For you, the only way we can 'give peace a chance' is to give you the truth, the fullest possible accounting of the fate of your loved ones."
Over 40 years later, Reagan's words are reflected in the mission statement of the Department of POW/MIA Accounting Agency, as researchers, historians, archeologists, forensic anthropologists and analysts scour the world to find and bring home servicemembers still missing from World War II, the Korean War, Vietnam, the Cold War, and other conflicts.
"Many of these [families] have been looking for answers for decades, these families have been looking for answers for so long," DPAA spokesman Sergeant First Class Sean Everette said to WWJ's Cassandra Llamas-Fossen.
"[We]'re helping those families find answers to questions that may have been in their family for 80 or more years."
For the DPAA, every day is Memorial Day.
"America cannot move forward by leaving her missing sons behind"
The execution and success of the DPAA's research and operational missions require a massive effort on local, state, and federal levels and well as coordination with hundreds of countries and municipalities around the world.
Out of the more than 81,600 missing servicemembers, the DPAA estimates 75% of the losses are located in the Indo-Pacific region and over 41,000 of the missing are presumed lost at sea.
Other missing servicemembers have last known locations in Europe, Africa, South America and the Middle East.
With a such a wide scope, Everette describes the entire process as beginning with a list — a very long list — of America's missing military members.
And a lot of time.
"There are some some cases where the research started literally decades ago," Everette said. "It's like solving cold cases [as a] a cop would solve a cold case whereas we're trying to find evidence... for things that happened at best in Vietnam. We're getting close to, what 40, 50 years ago, at this point. So you know, it's a long process."
Armed with the list of the missing, researchers are split into specific war times and comb through the National Archives and history books and narrow down where the Americans they are searching for may be found and who the DPAA might be able to identify, Everette explained.
The process usually goes name by name, one by one.
Once a specific area becomes more promising, Everette said the researchers usually come to a fork in the road about where the remains could be.
"Either they'll discover that one of the people that they're looking into at that moment could possibly be buried as an unknown in one of the many American cemeteries all over the world," Everette said. "Or they'll say, 'Oh, well, we have evidence that this person could potentially be found in this location.'"
An investigation team comprised of historians, analysts and other members, visit foreign countries to find that evidence. Information is complied through host nation archives, oral history, and through investigating leads in Last Known Alive cases on a particular region or battle.
Exactly like a cold case, one clue leads to another and when the investigation team finds all the clues that pinpoints to a possible location of an MIA or MIAs, the case is then elevated to a recovery team.
DPAA has over two dozen recovery teams, including one underwater and one mountaineering team. Each team is manned by 10 to 14 experts consisting of a forensic anthropologist, team leader and sergeant, linguist, medic, life support technician, communications technician, forensic photographer, explosive ordnance disposal technician, and mortuary affairs specialists.
"Same as archaeologists would do in Egypt or Greece or Italy, for Roman ruins and things like that, we send an archaeological team out to dig the sites with very precise scientific method that archaeologists and anthropologists use," Everette said. "And so they will then go and dig the sites and hopefully, they recover human remains."
Team members carefully dig, brush and sift their way through tons of soil on missions that last anywhere from 30 to 65 days; teams dig approximately eight to 10 hours a day. DPAA said it can take months to years to fully excavate a site due to host country permissions, weather and the need to complete scheduled digs already planned in other countries.
Some sites are listed as 'in jeopardy' and are prioritized in the excavation process. The DPAA said teams try to reach these areas as quick as possible due to the danger of the areas "being lost due to urbanization, and/or environmental, regulatory, or political issues beyond the control of the agency."
Everette said the process can diverge some if evidence gathered during an excavation yields no remains, but suggests that the service member was buried in one of the overseas cemeteries.
"If the service member was buried as an unknown in one of the American cemeteries, then we will send a disinterment team to then disinter those unknown service members," Everette explained. "And this is where those two paths come back to a single point, where once we have possible human remains, they then go to one of our labs."
The homecoming is bittersweet as the unknown soldier, airman, sailor or marine is then carefully taken back to American soil — some for the first time in decades — where confirming the identity of the service member begins.
The remains are taken to one of two military laboratories in Hawai'i or Nebraska where the all of the bones will be cataloged and examined. If there are any teeth, Everette said a forensic odontologist will make an analysis.
The sample and information is then sent to the DNA identification laboratory.
"They'll analyze the DNA and hopefully be able to match the DNA with a family reference sample that this service members family has given over specifically for the purpose of IDing their missing their missing loved one," Everette said.
"We will continue to work for their return"
As the ramp slowly descended in the rear of a C-17 on June 29, 2021, sunlight came flooding into the cargo bay, illuminating sailors and marines standing next to 10 caskets at the center draped in red, white and blue.
With two service members on each side, the caskets were lifted and slowly walked off the massive plane in an Honorable Carry ceremony at Joint Base Pearl Harbor Hickam on the Hawaiian island of O'ahu.
The ten sailors were shipmates on the ill-fated USS Oklahoma when she was torpedoed and eventually capsized during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. A total of 429 crew members died in the attack, 51 of which were unable to be identified.
The ten sailors made their way to their final resting place at the Punchbowl National Cemetery in Honolulu to be interred as 'unknowns,' and as they did so, they passed by the Courts of the Missing, where the names of missing Americans from WWII, Korea and Vietnam Wars are inscribed on stone walls.
It is here, among the tens of thousands of names, that Army Cpl. Dale W. Wright, 19, of Flint, Michigan, is listed.
But next to his name, a small rosette can be seen, symbolizing the fulfillment of the DPAA's promise to bring POW/MIAs home and back to their families.
The DPAA's process was crucial in bringing Wright back to his native Michigan -- he was first listed as missing in action during the Korean War over 70 years ago.
Wright entered the U.S. Army during 1950 and was a member of Company C, 1st Battalion, 32nd Infantry Regiment, 7th Infantry Division. According to the DPAA, "he was reported missing in action on Dec. 2, 1950, when his unit was attacked by enemy forces near the Chosin Reservoir, North Korea."
The battle is considered a pivotal point in the war, as 30,000 Allied forces successfully made a fighting retreat back below the 38th parallel, inflicting heavy causalities on the 120,000 strong Chinese troops that surrounded them; the battle marked the complete withdrawal of American forces from North Korea
Following the battle, which lasted 17 days in freezing cold temperatures earning the nickname 'Frozen Chosin', the DPAA said Wright's remains were lost.
"Over a thousand U.S. marines and soldiers were killed during the Chosin Reservoir Campaign and thousands more were wounded in battle or incapacitated by cold weather," The DPAA said. "Many men were buried where they fell, and due to the cold weather and the retreat of UN Forces from the area, hundreds of fallen marines and soldiers were unable to be immediately recovered."
His name was added to a list of more than 7,500 Americans from the Korean War that remain unaccounted for and DPAA's efforts to locate the missing are currently railroaded by political strain that exists to this day on the Korean peninsula.
The long years passed, until seven decades later in 2021, only Wright's half-sister Linda Stover, 76, of Holly Township, remained.
Stover told mLive that she never thought she’d get closure over what happened to Wright, who she last saw when she was 4-years-old.
Now, the memories of playing in the backyard with her older half-brother are hazy, but it's all she can remember of him. The two half siblings shared their mother, Eleanor Andreas, who passed in the 1960s from cancer.
Stover said her mother never gave up hope that Wright was out there still.
The DPAA had not given up on him, either.
In 2018, 55 boxes containing potential American remains from North Korea were turned over to the United States during a summit meeting in Singapore between President Donald Trump and North Korean Chairman Kim Jong-un.
The DPAA immediately began a joint forensic review of unidentified remains.
The agency was able to make a positive match with DNA samples Stover had provided DPAA some time before.
Stover said she “cried and cried” when she received the call from the Army Causality Office to notify her that her half-brother was ready to come home to Michigan.
“I never thought this would happen in my lifetime -- he’s been missing 70 years,” Stover said.
“It means everything,” Stover said. “... As the years go by, you figure he has passed away. This is a lot of closure with him coming home.”
Wright was interred at the Great Lakes National Cemetery in August of 2021, closing a long, agonizing chapter for his family who were left to wonder what had happened.
For the DPAA, it's another name off their long list, another fulfilled promise.
"You know, I've been in I've been in the military for almost 20 years now, because I am active duty Army," Everette reflected on. "And it's one of the best assignments I've ever had just because of the mission and the fact that we get to bring these people home and that their families get those answers that they've always sought."
`The nation which forgets its defenders will be itself forgotten'
It was quite an opposite situation for James Weir when he cracked open a storage unit he had won at an auction in Cadillac, Mich. earlier this year.
In no way was Weir expecting to stumble across the cremated remains of a decorated Special Forces soldier collecting dust on a shelf in the back corner.
But the ashes of Master Sgt. Enrique Leonardo Castro turned up in Weir's possession.
The Michigan Veterans Affairs Agency first became aware of the discovery after Weir contacted them about what they could do with Castro's remains.
That was when MVAA Director Zaneta Adams stepped in.
"I reached out to [the VA central office in DC] and said, 'Hey, this is what I have, who do we contact?'" Adams recalled of the incident. "We need to find out how we can get him laid to rest properly. And so immediately, the National Cemetery Administration, through the VA, as well as the Missing in America Project, worked together to see if there were any next of kin listed, which on his paperwork there wasn't."
Their research only led Adams and the MVAA to more questions: who was Master Sgt. Castro? How did he get to Michigan? Where is his family?
According to service records, Castro was a Texas native, having been born in San Antonio in 1950. He joined the Army in 1968 at 18 years old. He passed specialized training to become a Green Beret and served as a United States Army Special Forces soldier out of Fort Bragg, North Carolina.
Officials said "the Green Berets are uniquely selected, trained and equipped for deployment around the world during peacetime, conflict and war. Regionally and culturally oriented, Special Forces soldiers are experts in unconventional warfare, direct action."
Castro saw combat in the Vietnam War and earned the prestigious Legion of Merit and Bronze Star medals, officials said. Castro's military service spanned 25 years before he honorably retired in 1993.
He died in 2016 at age 66.
Due to his service, Castro qualified to be buried at any national cemetery, but Adams made it a personal mission to track down any family members she could, which was not on record with the VA, and reunite him with where he was supposed to be.
As April 2022 came and went, Adams said no living relatives could be found and Michigan accepted Castro for burial at the Great Lakes National Cemetery in Holly.
But the real story occurred after the MVAA's announcement of Castro's discovery caught fire in military communities.
"I know Special Forces wanted to be involved with his final ceremony and so through some chat and information on social media, his brothers [in-arms], were really very complimentary of him and said he was such a great guy, he was a great individual," Adams said.
For living veterans, the memory of a passed comrade lives fresh in their memory, as it did with those who served alongside Master Sgt. Castro and it was through those veterans that Adams discovered he had a son living in Texas.
Adams and the VA were able to piece together the questions they had surrounding the Special Forces veteran after speaking with Castro's son.
"I believe that he may have fell onto hard times and lost the storage, we don't know all of the details, but I just know that it wasn't intentional," Adams recalled. "His son said that some of his [dad's] ashes had actually been scattered in the ocean, but not all of them."
Adams said Castro's son had requested his remains be sent to Castro's native Texas where he can be interred at Ft. Sam Houston National Cemetery in San Antonio later this year.
"For me to make sure that a veteran, a Special Forces guy, a Vietnam veteran, this individual, was laid to rest in his final resting place, it made... me feel like my service to this state and to the country is not in vain," Adams said.
"From veteran to veteran, I would want someone to take care of me the way that this team pulled together and took care of him."
Michigan will still honor the late Special Forces Veteran in a ceremony by the Dearborn Allied War Veterans Council during the Memorial Day parade in Dearborn on Saturday May 28.
A ceremony to commemorate and celebrate a life of service and to remind Americans not to forget the true meaning and sacrifice behind why we recognize Memorial Day.
'You are not forgotten'
At national buildings and over state capital, veterans posts and in parades across the nation, an unmistakable black flag with white lettering and a white silhouette flies in the wind.
Other than the U.S. flag, the symbol of the National League of POW/MIA Families is the only flag to fly over White House.
Over the years, President Ronald Raegan, President George H. W. Bush, and President Donald Trump all cemented the flag's presence in the Capitol, flying it “as the symbol of the Nation’s concern and commitment to achieving the fullest possible accounting of Americans who, having been prisoners of war or missing in action, still remain unaccounted for; and . . Americans who in the future may become prisoners of war, missing in action, or otherwise unaccounted for as a result of hostile action.”
The DPAA and their partners along with veterans groups across the nation, adhere to this mission everyday.
Those pouring over documents.
Those digging through dirt.
Those making that final phone call to the families to let them know their loved one was found.
Everyday, the process begins, continues or it ends, but it is not forgotten.
"To finally have those questions answered, 'What happened to my service member? Where has my service member been? Why can't we bring them home?' To have those those questions answered, it brings closure," Everette said. "To see those families, hear the relief in those families' voices, it is a feeling unlike anything that I had really ever felt before."
According to DPAA records, 20 service members have been brought back home and reunited with their loved ones in 2022, but the work is far from over.
Over 40 years ago, President Reagan faced families of POW/MIA military members and addressed them.
"Thanks to your work, and as part of your legacy, future generations of American servicemen will be assured that they will never be forgotten by their countrymen," he said.
And he wasn't wrong.