Michael Brandy, Deseret News
DNA analyst Lauren Stagnitto, left, swabs Monte Widdison's mouth Saturday. Widdison's brother was killed in Vietnam in 1968.

When wars end, not all soldiers come home.

Some are captured, some are unaccounted for but presumed dead, and some are missing in action.

In the United States, more than 88,000 are still missing since World War II.

Those servicemen who are unaccounted for are sought not only by families but also by the Department of Defense POW/MIA office in Washington, D.C., which sponsored a Family Update in Salt Lake City Saturday.

Approximately 80 people came to the University Park Marriott Hotel to check the status of their missing military men.

Briefing the families was a group of Defense Department specialists, from every military branch, who work specifically with POW/MIA issues from various combat theaters.

They held the event to make sure the families of the missing receive case-specific information and know what the government is doing on a global level to recover the remains of missing servicemen, according to Capt. Mary Olsen, public affairs officer for the POW/MIA office.

Family members talked about their missing loved ones — fathers, brothers, uncles and sons — all unaccounted for. But all had hope for their return.

One of the ways used to identify remains is through DNA analysis. A table was placed at the entrance to collect DNA samples from family members using oral swabs. The DNA will go into a database. If skeletal remains are found, officials can compare that DNA to DNA obtained from families.

"DNA is used not only to identify remains, but also to exclude remains," Olsen said.

Jennifer Cooper said her father, Maj. Richard Cooper, went missing on Dec. 19, 1972, three months before she was born. She never knew her father, and no one in her family would talk about his absence. Eventually, she forgot about him.

Years later, bone fragments were found, and through DNA testing, the lab determined the fragments were her father's remains.

That started a healing process.

The return of the remains started everyone talking about what they had repressed over the years, allowing them to come to terms with their loss, she said. The family buried his remains at Arlington National Cemetery.

"We now have a place to visit him," she said.

The day after he was buried, his mother, in the later stages of Parkinson's disease, died. Cooper said she thinks her grandma was waiting for her son to come home.

An inner battle Cooper fought, was over. She was mad at the government because she said they didn't care about her dad. She found out they did care.

When Kathy Bramwell was almost 2 years old, her dad, Navy Lt. J.G. Ross Bramwell, went missing in action. Though she doesn't remember him, she does remember one thing: Her mom was devastated.

"It was really hard for her," she said.

Bramwell said that, as a child, she wanted him back and fantasized about when he would come home. She would be proud of her sailor, and together they would travel the world and catch up on lost time.

But age introduced her to reality, and she gradually accepted she would never ride on her dad's shoulders, and he would never see her graduate from high school or see his grandson.

Because his body had never been recovered, Bramwell said the local cemetery wouldn't allow a gravestone, so she and her mom, who died in 1970, had no place to go to remember him.

In 2006, Bramwell and her son went to an MIA update in Washington, D.C. They went to Arlington National Cemetery to see something she had not seen before — his headstone.

"It was the first time I had seen my dad's marker," she said.

Which, combined with the MIA update, gave her closure, for the first time in her memory.

"It was the trip of a lifetime," she said.

Her cousin, Gordon James, said the family's grief was enduring. After family reunions, his grandmother couldn't bear Ross Bramwell missing from the family photo, so she put the most recent picture she had of him in the corner of the bigger photo. She also wrote him poems to keep his memory alive.

James said there was always a missing element in his family, a feeling of unrealized dreams and potential.

Most of Ross Bramwell's immediate family have died themselves, waiting for his remains to come home. The rest of the family are still waiting.

"You always have a sense of hope that your loved one is found," James said.

He hopes as the population ages, the younger generation will remember those who are missing.

But never forgotten.


E-mail: lwilde@desnews.com