05/01/2000 at 01:00 AM EDT
The funeral looks and sounds like any other at Arlington National Cemetery. There is the flag-draped casket, the military honor guard, the 21-gun salute, the clear, piercing notes of "Taps." But when Christopher Dunn begins speaking to the 40 people gathered to mourn his brother, Navy Lt. Cmdr. Michael Dunn, it becomes clear that this one is different. "My hero comes home to rest where he belongs, in a field of heroes," says Dunn, a Washington, D.C., lawyer, in a quavering voice. "He was lost, but now he is found."
It was 32 years ago—on Jan. 26,1968—that the Navy A-6A attack jet carrying Dunn, 26, and his pilot, Capt. Norman Eidsmoe, 34, went down over North Vietnam. When the war ended, the two were among 2,583 American servicemen listed as missing in action in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia (more than 58,000 died there). For years, the Dunns and Eidsmoes, like the other families, lived with gnawing questions. "You don't want to give up, ever," says Betsy Eidsmoe, now 67, who had five children with Norman. "You always think, 'Well, maybe they got out.' "
Though most authorities agree there is next to no chance any American MIAs are still alive in Vietnam and its neighboring countries, more and more questions about what happened to each of them are being answered, thanks to a concerted international effort—dating from 1973—to find and identify remains of U.S. servicemen, 554 of whom have been identified. The task of searching for the 2,029 Americans still unaccounted for in the region involves a network of several hundred military personnel, diplomats and scientists from four countries, whose work combines negotiation, forensics, archeology and old-fashioned sleuthing. Ultimately they hope to account for every missing American. "This is part of our national psyche—we don't leave our buddies behind on the battlefield," says Pentagon MIA chief Robert Jones. "We do everything we possibly can to bring them home."
Overseen by the Joint Task Force-Full Accounting and the U.S. Army Central Identification Laboratory, both based in Hawaii, the program every year undertakes 11 missions, each of which lasts 35 days. Though every mission is different and may involve separate searches for as many as 50 MIAs at a time, the painstaking approach is always the same.
All start with detective work, often stemming from reports from Vietnamese who recount what they saw decades ago. In Hoa Binh Province southwest of Hanoi last October, U.S. Army Maj. Jay Carlson, 38, accompanied by two interpreters, interviewed Ha Van Soi, 67, a former assistant village chief who said he personally buried two U.S. fliers from a plane shot down in 1967. Leading them down a steep hill, along a rice paddy dike, then to another hill, Soi directed them to the spot where he said he placed the men in adjoining graves with a stone between them at their feet. The team made sketches of the area, took soil samples, then fixed the location by satellite. But after inspecting the soil, they soon concluded that the ground at the site had been somehow disturbed and that bodies buried there 32 years ago couldn't be there today. Carlson and his team were disappointed but undeterred. Blind alleys are an accepted part of the job. "In 15 years in the Army," he says, "this is the most important mission I've ever done."
Sometimes the search pays off. When a viable site is found, an excavation is scheduled and a team led by an anthropologist such as Elliott Moore takes over. Working for the Central Identification Laboratory since 1992, Moore has directed 49 such digs. At one, on a remote hillside overlooking rice paddies in Bac Can Province, south of the Chinese border, he and 11 U.S. servicemen and women and 130 Vietnamese hired hands carefully comb the area where a U.S. Air Force F-105D went down in April 1966. "There was complete disintegration of the aircraft, which the Vietnamese scavenged for metal long ago," says Moore, 49. "The families have an expectation of a full skeleton. They're not going to get it with this type of crash."
But they may get answers. Moore's group clears an area about 105 ft. by 105 ft. and divides it with string into 64 squares. In sweltering heat, the workers fill plastic pails with soil from each square, then pass the buckets uphill, where the dirt is sifted through screens. It takes the team four weeks, but by the end, they have found tiny, tattered remains of a pilot's flight suit, a locker key, three U.S. coins, a shard of a pilot's helmet with the letters "CAPT" and the first three letters of a name. And they have some bone fragments—with luck, enough to make a positive DNA identification.
Such fragments are sent first to Hanoi, where they are examined by a joint U.S.-Vietnamese team of an anthropologist, a forensic dentist and a pathologist to determine if they are human and if they are Asian. (If so, they are presumed to be Vietnamese, unless the subject of the search was Asian-American or Native American.) Non-Vietnamese remains then go to the Central Identification Lab in Honolulu—but not until the military holds a somber rite known as a Repatriation Ceremony at Hanoi's Noi Bai Airport. There, a silent nine-member honor guard escorts the remains, which are placed in flag-draped, coffinlike containers, onto an Air Force C-17. "This is the first time they have been back on U.S. territory, which the plane is, since they fell," says U.S. Ambassador to Vietnam Pete Peterson. "It is a solemn reminder of what we're here for."
Finally, in Honolulu, a team of 170 researchers gets down to the business of making an identification. It is a blind test; they are told nothing about the bone fragments. Instead, they must go through their entire database of dental records and DNA samples—developed with the cooperation of relatives—in order to make a match. The results are then reviewed by an outside panel of anthropologists before being submitted to a board of colonels at the Pentagon.
Despite such diligence, the team's findings aren't always accepted by the families, some of whom remain convinced their loved ones are still alive. Occasionally the families will bring in their own experts. Retired Army paratrooper Col. Earl Hopper, 78, and his second wife, Patty, 53, rejected the Joint Task Force conclusion that Hopper's son, Air Force First Lt. Earl Jr., then 24, was killed when his F-4D went down near the Laotian border in 1968. Though military teams found what they say are bone fragments and teeth from Hopper, the samples did not yield enough DNA for a positive identification. "The bone fragments are not worth crap," says Patty Hopper. "They are totally unidentifiable."
The Hoppers, of Glendale, Ariz., run a group called Task Force Omega, which lobbies the government to do more to find men they believe are still being held captive. "I know damn well he got out of that aircraft alive," says Patty of her stepson. "Whether he was walking away from it or crawling away from it, he was alive on the ground. There's no reason to believe he couldn't still be alive today."
Ambassador Peterson, a POW for 6½ years, understands the Hoppers' determination. "I subscribed to that theory at one time," says Peterson. "The math would suggest that more of us survived. But there's not a shred of evidence." Indeed, the Joint Task Force—which checks out every report of a live sighting—has yet to find a survivor. "I'm a Cold Warrior. When I started, I was convinced there were some held against their will," says Gary Flanagan, 49, a Task Force member since 1987. "I don't believe there are now."
For the Dunns, the news that Michael had been found brought both grief and gratitude. Chris Dunn recalls the phone call confirming his brother's identification. "Thirty years of waiting suddenly came together in one moment," he says. "It overtakes you." The Joint Task Force had given the family frequent updates throughout the 32 years, plus, finally, photos of the crash site and the dig. "It made us feel very proud to be Americans," says Dunn. "What the country does to honor its dead is really beyond description."
Don Sider in Vietnam and Hawaii and Linda Kramer in Arlington