Ken Cluck remembers how the death of his brother, three years his senior, affected their mother.
For 15 years after Warren Newton’s death, as an Army soldier fighting in Vietnam, Cluck watched his mom get up in the middle of the night, in a dream state, waiting for her other son to come home.
But they both knew he had died in a mountainside crash, and there was “no way he’s coming home,” Cluck said. “That’s kind of where it was left for a long time.”
But Wednesday, a month to the day after his mother’s death, Cluck will be in attendance atArlington National Cemetery, where his brother’s remains will be interred 47 years after he was killed in Vietnam. The ceremony is the culmination of efforts from a division of the Department of Defense committed to accounting for missing veterans and providing information to their families. More than 1,000 Vietnam veterans have been accounted for since 1973,according to the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA.)
Newton, an 18-year-old staff sergeant from Eugene, died in 1968 when he was serving as a door gunner on a helicopter flight over what is now part of Vietnam’s Quang Nam Province. The helicopter was flying over a dangerous area teeming with Viet Cong fighters, Cluck said, and it took enemy fire before plummeting into a mountainside at about 90 mph.
“It wasn’t flying, they were just riding,” Cluck said, describing the fiery descent.
The remains of one Army soldier, Spc. Fred Secrist, a 19-year-old from Eugene, were recovered about two weeks after the crash, according to the DPAA.
The remainder of the four-person crew — Newton and two helicopter pilots — was declared missing in action.
It was difficult for soldiers to retrieve the bodies, Cluck said. “They made an effort, and I feel they really tried,” he said.
That effort didn’t end on the mountainside. Twenty-five years later, the United States and Vietnam began to survey the site of the crash in an attempt to bring the soldiers’ remains home. The DPAA effort came to a head in August 2011 when a U.S./Vietnam team excavated Newton and his crewmates’ remains and personal effects.
The return of soldiers’ remains require the efforts of agency analysts, historians, linguists and researchers, both domestically and abroad, said Air Force Lt. Col. Melinda Morgan, a DPAA spokeswoman.
Once the DPAA thinks it has pinpointed the sites of missing veterans, it tries to get the permissions and permits required to excavate the land, Morgan said, noting about 30 excavations may be going on at any given time.
She said ceremonies such as Wednesday’s prompt varying emotions for veterans’ loved ones, relief and sadness among them. A permanent site in Arlington National Cemetery, where their veteran’s service is officially honored and remembered, is important to friends and family.
“You don’t appreciate having a place to pay your respects to your loved one until you don’t have one,” Morgan said.
More than 1,600 Vietnam veterans remain unaccounted for, according to the DPAA. But 10 Vietnam veterans’ remains are among the almost 50 from various wars that have been accounted for this year, according to DPAA news releases.
That wouldn’t be possible, Cluck said, without the efforts of people like Susan Johanson of Bellingham, Washington.
Johanson, a friend of Chief Warrant Officer Rainer Ramos, a pilot who died alongside Newton, continually contacted authorities over the period of several years — she couldn’t recall exactly how long — to keep tabs on how the excavation was going.
She said she was compelled because families were waiting for answers. They needed to have their loved ones brought back from overseas, she said.
Wednesday’s ceremony, as she put it, “brings to me a lot of peace because these people have lived in turmoil for years, not knowing what really happened.”
Cluck said he probably thinks about his brother every day. The ceremony means a lot to him, he said.
“I’m sorry that my mom did not live to see the actual service, but she did live long enough to know that it’s going to be done,” Cluck said. “So she did get some final answers.”
— Jim Ryan