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Missing in action no more

Sunday, September 26, 2004

(Photo)
Morris Waller
PORTAGEVILLE -- Over the years Delphine Nance has learned to live with the disappearance of her son, but it has never been out of her mind.

"It's the last thing on my mind when I go to bed at night, and the first thing on my mind when I get up," said Nance of Portageville.

It was Feb. 3, 1966, when Nance's 22-year-old son Chief Master Sergeant Morris Waller, a crew chief on the Air Force C-123 aircraft, was making a supply mission, flying south of Khe Sanh, South Vietnam, en route to Dong Ha, Republic of Vietnam, when his plane went to down.

"He had gone up to the northwest corner and back to Dong Ha and they (Air Force) lost contact. That's when they said they didn't know what happened -- whether something happened to the plane or what," Nance recalled.

Now the Nances have the chance to lay to rest any "what if" questions they may have had when their son was listed as Missing in Action 38 years ago.

Last year officials with the Pentagon's Prisoners of War/Missing in Action Office notified Nance and her husband, Bill Nance, they had recovered remains from their son's crash site. Waller was positively identified in June 2004.

"They declared him as missing for 12 years, and then they declared him dead, but they still went back in there and sifted the dirt and they found enough to say that it was him," Nance explained.

Nance said she provided DNA samples to help with the identification process.

"They found a collarbone, but the soil over there has a lot of acid and it was so crumbly they couldn't do anything with it," Nance explained.

But it was dental records that provided positive identification of her son, whose teeth were recovered from the site, Nance said.

"Dental records are as a good as a fingerprint and as accurate as fingerprint in identifying somebody," said Larry Greer, spokesman for the Pentagon's POW/MIA office. "You can take a single tooth and rotate it in space and have it match -- or not -- the records of an individual. Even if that person had not had a dental X-ray, there's still dental charts."

Mitochondrial DNA, dental records and other measures are used in the identification process. Mitochondrial DNA used to confirm 80 percent of the cases, but it cannot be used as stand alone evidence, Greer pointed out. It has to be used with another form of identification, such as dental records, he said.

Greer said it isn't rare across America to find the remains of a POW or MIA after all these years, but it is for a specific community.

"This kind of a story doesn't hit a community more than once or twice a decade because of the rarity of an MIA being from a particular town," Greer pointed out.

In 1985, POW/MIA did its first excavation in Vietnam, only 10 years after the end of the war, Greer said. Vietnamese are a lot more cooperative now than they were then, he said adding they have wide access within the country.

The process to locate and excavate is a massive, detective case, Greer said. It consists of many hours of analysis, interviews, record comparisons which can then take a recovery team to a geographical spot or a crash site.

"Assuming we do recover remains in an archaeological dig, the remains receive a full military escort to Hawaii, where a lab scientist, a forensic anthropologist and others will begin their work, which can often take years," Greer said. Once a positive identification is made and peers have reviewed the work, families receive an extensive briefing on the entire process, Greer said.

An annual budget of $103 million is used to bring closure to families and 600 POW/MIA office employees are scattered out in countries excavating crash sites, Greer said.

The POW/MIA office maintains 88,000 cases from World War II, the Korean and Vietnam Wars, the Cold War and even the Gulf War.

Today there are 1,853 Americans listed as Missing in Action in Vietnam, and on the flip side of that number, 730 other missing service members have been found have been brought back to their families.

Now that the Nances know for sure their son was killed instantly in the crash, they said they can have a little closure.

"You know what happened," Nance said. "You know that he wasn't captured and tortured."

While Greer admitted he can't speak for every family, he agreed most families of MIAs/POWs whose remains have been found are relieved.

"It finally allows most of them to write a final page or chapter of a family's life," Greer said.

Although Nance hopes no one ever has to live with what she and her family have over the years, with today's war in Iraq, she knows it's possible.

Nance offered advice for others who may someday be in her family's same position: "You just have to hope, and that's all you can do ... is hope."