Even though these wars were decades ago, these conflicts were decades ago, we are still dedicated to our mission of keeping the promise to help bring some of these family members home. —Shelia L. Sledge, Army Sgt. 1st Class
SALT LAKE CITY — Thiel Reeves loved airplanes.
In fact, he once told his wife that he would never bail out in combat. He would ride the plane to the ground.
More than 60 years after 1st Lt. Reeves was gunned down in combat, his brother William sat at a table spread with yellowed telegrams, pictures of his brother and newspaper clippings, all pieces of to the puzzle of his brother's whereabouts.
He wore a blue vest over a T-shirt that had a picture of his brother. Under the picture was the caption, "You are not forgotten."
Reeves was one of more than 70 family members of missing servicemen who gathered at the Radisson Hotel in Salt Lake City, Saturday. The Department of Defense Prisoners of War, Missing Personnel (DPMO) gives monthly updates in Washington, D.C. and throughout the country on the more than 83,000 missing United States servicemen.
Between the Vietnam, Korean and the cold war period, 49 service members from Utah remain unaccounted for. A breakdown by state is not available for World War II, but more than 73,000 members nationwide are unaccounted for.
Fourteen Utahns who served in Vietnam, Korea and the cold war period have been located since the Defense Prisoner of War/Missing Personnel Office began in 1995, and 167 World War II veterans have been discovered nationwide since 2007.
The Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for DPMO, retired Maj. Gen. Montague Windfield, walked around to each table and greeted the families of those who were missing.
"We absolutely love our veterans," Windfield told the audience of family members.
In his address, he explained the DPMO's mission by using the story of Army Sgt. David Lemcke, who died from a fire and explosion that resulted from an accidental discharge in his underground bunker. His remains were assumed to have been cremated in the heat of the fire. However through field recovery done by the Joint Prisoners of War, Missing in Action Accounting Command, Lemcke's remains were identified. He was buried in Nov. 2011.
It is important to be able to identify these service members and to give the families answers, Montague said. As the family member of a service member once told him, "You don't appreciate a funeral until there is not one."
Montague explained that several pieces account for the success of the Department, including the president and Congress, which passed the National Defense Authorization Act in 2010. which among other things allowed for the investigation of those missing from World War II.
He also mentioned the work of veterans organizations and family groups, private citizens, and DNA scientists, negotiators to develop and maintain good relationships with countries such as North Korea, Japan and China, analysts and investigators.
In Theil Reeves' case, they have hit a wall. For years the family heard that he might be a prisoner of war, William Reeves said, but this turned out to be untrue.
Since William Reeves' last visit with the DPMO, he was able to gather information about his brother's "kill" from Russia, whose planes shot down Theil Reeves. Although a mayor in North Korea confirmed that a plane crashed, the United States has not been able to access the area to investigate, William Reeves said. Today's updates did not get him any closer to discovering his brother's remains.
"The information they've provided here is less than what we've already known."
After Montague's address, various family members stood and shared their loved one's stories in a remembrance ceremony, including one woman who was notified Thursday that it was likely her uncle's remains had been found.
"He's not lost anymore," the woman who identified herself as Lorna told the group.
After the ceremony the different members of the what the DPMO calls its accounting community briefed family members on research and updates on soldiers from the various wars. Family members also had the chance to meet one-on-one with military casualty officers and other specialists, to get up-to-date information on their service member's case.
They also collected DNA samples from family members to store in a database. When remains are found the Joint Prisoners of War, Missing in Action Accounting Command will notify those in the DNA office and they will compare the samples to potential matches, according to Suni M. Edison, assistant technical lead at MtDNA, who works with the Armed Forces DNA Identification Laboratory.
Events like Saturday's are important to provide families with "closure," Shelia L. Sledge, Army Sgt. 1st Class, from Department of Defense, Prisoners of War Missing in Action public affairs.
Each service member has at least two family members, a mother and a father, who are waiting on their loved one's status, she said.
"Even though these wars were decades ago, these conflicts were decades ago, we are still dedicated to our mission of keeping the promise to help bring some of these family members home," Sledge said.
And many of their loved ones still hold out hope. William Reeves choked up as he talked about a grave marker indicating that Thiel Reeves is missing in action, near where his parents are buried in Cedar City.
"It would be great to have the remains buried there if they're ever found."