09/02/1996 at 01:00 AM EDT
LIKE THOUSANDS OF MOTHERS BE-fore her, Sally Kennedy had come to Arlington National Cemetery to bury her son. But as she nodded to friends and relatives at the cemetery's redbrick chapel on the morning of Aug. 2, Kennedy, 78, couldn't help smiling. Twenty-five years after her son's plane crashed in the jungles of Vietnam, she was able to play a vital part in laying him to rest. "Knowing Jack's in heaven makes me happy," she says. "I know he's home."
After the O-2A plane he was piloting crashed in Quang Nam-Da Nang Province on Aug. 16,1971, 24-year-old Air Force Capt. John William "Jack" Kennedy was listed as missing in action. Sally and her husband, Dan (who died in 1986), of Arlington, Va., waited in vain for any news of the younger of their two sons, a Virginia Military Institute graduate. The uncertainty took "a terrible toll on me," says Kennedy. "I thought, 'If he's alive, beautiful. If he isn't, let's hope he died immediately' " For two decades as Virginia coordinator for the National League of Families of American Prisoners and Missing in Southeast Asia, she urged Congress to do more to account for MIAs and POWs.
Finally, in December 1992, the Vietnamese government turned over bone fragments believed to be Jack's. Because the bones were highly degraded, standard DNA testing—which uses genetic material from a cell's nucleus—was not possible. Then came a breakthrough. Using a new technique known as mitochondrial DNA—genetic material from sacs outside the cell nucleus—scientists at the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology matched the DNA from the bones to Sally's in 1995. Though it took years to perfect, the technique has helped to identify 37 missing war dead since 1991, and the institute hopes to be able to identify an additional 100 soon. Sally Kennedy has found peace at last, but more than 2,000 American families still await news of loved ones lost in action in Southeast Asia. "We know not everyone can be accounted for," she says. "But I hope that Jack's return will assist other families in getting answers."