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Military repatriation: Accounting for the fallen and honoring their sacrifice

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Good morning on this Memorial Day. Half a century after this nation began going to extraordinary lengths to bring back the remains of the missing from the Vietnam War, the passage of time has changed - who is coming home and who they come home to. Jay Price with WUNC has this report.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Playing bagpipes).

JAY PRICE, BYLINE: This month, Staff Sgt. Robert Ferris Jr. came home. He was a 20-year-old turret gunner in a B-17 bomber shot down in World War II. His remains were retrieved from a cemetery in France and identified last fall. That's when a phone call came to Barbara Weiss of New Bern, N.C.

BARBARA WEISS: I think it was a process of elimination because they sought out my grandparents and they went down the line, and everybody they thought of has passed.

PRICE: She's sitting beside the casket just after the graveside service, holding in her lap the flag that had been draped across it. Weiss is Ferris' niece, born years after he died. When she got the call, the Army mortuary affairs specialist at first asked if her grandparents were still alive.

WEISS: Then the next one would be an aunt. And then they were asking about my uncle Al - he was gone. Then they asked, do you know Burtress? I said, that's my mother. Can we talk to her? And I said, she's passed too. And then I said, I'm the only one. I'm the next of kin.

PRICE: That's typical now that the remains the military is finding and identifying mostly date to World War II. There's no immediate family to be designated the official next of kin.

WILLIAM SHORTY COX: Probably about 60 to 70% we're dealing with now never knew the soldier.

PRICE: William "Shorty" Cox is a senior mortuary affairs specialist for the Army, one of four who contacts families when a long-missing soldier is identified. In 14 years at the job, he's seen a shift away from Vietnam War cases as the number of recoverable remains from that war have dwindled to perhaps a few hundred. Meanwhile, tens of thousands are possible from earlier conflicts, and for those, most immediate family are already gone. Usually, a distant family member is willing to stand in as next of kin. It helps that the military covers all the costs, but sometimes relatives are so far removed they don't want to bother.

COX: I've got a case right now where I've gone through 16 family members, and I can't get a single one of them willing to take up the mantle to bury the soldier. They don't know them. They're busy. I'm on my last family member now.

PRICE: if that one says no, the Army has to act as next of kin and decide things like the burial site. Such cases were once rare, but Cox's team has three others in process right now. George Washington University professor Sarah Wagner is the author of "What Remains: Bringing America's Missing Home From The Vietnam War." She says even if no immediate family is alive, there's still merit in accounting for the missing. It shows current service members that the country values them, and it means something to those who attend the memorials, like one she went to at Arlington National Cemetery, where no one knew the deceased.

SARAH WAGNER: There wasn't a dry eye, from what I could tell. I mean, people felt incredibly moved. There is a sense of pageantry, right? Here is the 21-volley salute. Here's the folded-up American flag handed over. You become part of something, and you can trace a lineage to a moment of sacrifice.

PRICE: At Ferris' burial, Weiss, the fallen soldier's niece, cheerfully stepped into her unexpected role and helped organize things like a funeral home display of faded photos.

WEISS: I did not know him, but now I do know him.

PRICE: And so now this is how we remember long missing troops when they return - as part of everyone's family somehow.

PRICE: For NPR News, I'm Jay Price in New Bern, N.C. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Jay Price
Jay Price has specialized in covering the military for nearly a decade.