The wait began, as it did for more than fifty-five thousand families during the Vietnam War, with a telegram that was personally delivered by two Air Force officers. They arrived at our home on May 22, 1968, and told our parents that my stepbrother, Major Thomas B. Mitchell (he went by “Mitch”), and eight other men had gone missing in action while on a night mission over Laos. Mitch was one of the pilots flying a C-130 Hercules, a giant turboprop that was thirty-eight feet high and weighed sixty thousand pounds before loading. The aircraft, call sign Blind Bat 01, was dropping flares to illuminate night traffic traveling down the Ho Chi Minh Trail, which was heavily defended by antiaircraft guns.
The Air Force searched for the missing men until the middle of July. Despite electronic searches as well as heroic efforts by pilots who put their lives at risk to search for the crew, no trace of the men, or even of the large airplane, was found. The men and their plane had vanished under the triple canopy of dense forest covering the mountains of North Vietnam and Laos.
What happens when you believe you will never find out what happened to someone you love? What happens when you can’t stop waiting, even when you know hope is irrational, even when you want to draw a line and just stop?
Mitch was one year older than I was. His mother died, my father died, and our parents, who were old friends, married while we were in elementary school. Mitch was outgoing while I was shy, athletic while I was clumsy, adventurous while I was cautious. For years, my role in life was to be Mitch’s tagalong kid sister, which he tolerated with remarkable kindness. When we were in high school, we double-dated. For Valentine’s Day, Mitch bought his girlfriend, Joyce, a gold heart charm, and my boyfriend gave me the same gift. Until Mitch left for the Air Force Academy, we were seldom apart for more than a day.
After Mitch graduated from the Air Force Academy, he met a beautiful, soft-spoken blonde named Norma. In a letter written in 1965, he wrote that a change in his orders meant they would not spend Thanksgiving together as planned. “The service life is new to her,” he wrote. “God only knows that if and when we get married, it will not be any easier on her.” They married on June 10, 1966, and almost immediately after the wedding left for Okinawa, where Mitch’s group was headquartered. When Mitch was on combat missions, Norma lived in military housing, looking forward to the times when he would be home on leave.
The last letter I received from Mitch was dated April 18, 1968. Mitch and Norma had just been together on one of his long leaves, and the letter, ten pages long, was full of their hopes to return to the States by Christmas and described the custom-made furniture they had ordered. My husband, children, and I had just moved to California, and Mitch promised they would visit us. I was expecting my third baby, and he wished me a “baby boy this time.” Mitch never got to see the furniture he ordered—or my baby boy, who arrived six days before he went missing.
While the Vietnam War ground to its ugly end, the families of the missing waited, wandering alone in unknown emotional territory. The Viet Cong refused to release any information about prisoners, and as a result, our parents were sometimes asked whether or not they could identify Mitch in the few blurry photographs that were obtained. “All the men look the same,” Mom said. Skinny, with close-cropped hair.
The Paris Peace Accords, which ended the war, were signed in January of 1973, and the country gave a collective sigh of relief. One of the most unpopular and divisive wars in the history of the United States had ended.
But there was no relief for the families of the men listed as missing in action.
The list of the POWs who were scheduled for release was made public on January 29, 1973. Dad died, still hoping, four days before two uniformed officers came to the house to tell us Mitch’s name was not on the list. He was sixty-six.
In 1975, Mitch’s status was changed to “killed in action.” The change in status was not based on any evidence that Mitch had died, but on the presumption that Mitch was no longer alive—a presumption which was easy for the Air Force to make, but impossible for me to accept. Not really, not in the depths of my being. Ninety-eight percent of me knew he was dead. It was the other 2 percent that would cause me so much trouble in the years to come.
I did try, as friends suggested, to “get over it.” After Mom died, a few days before our country’s 1976 bicentennial celebration, I gathered up all of the paperwork she had carefully saved: the telegrams, the letters from the Air Force, the pamphlets, the posthumously awarded Distinguished Flying Cross. She once told me she had given up hope, but I didn’t believe her. I put everything into a storage box, along with my own memorabilia: letters and cards from Mitch; the silk scarf, embroidered with the Air Force Academy logo, which he had given me when he was nineteen and I was eighteen; the wings he was awarded when he graduated from flight school; the newspaper announcements of his marriage; the newspaper clippings and photographs from the ceremony during which he was awarded his Air Medal; my stainless steel POW bracelet; an unused bumper sticker that said, “POWs Never Have a Nice Day.” I closed the lid of the box. I put the box into a closet. I closed the door to the closet. I would, I resolved, move on.
Except that stubborn, irrational, pesky 2 percent of me, that part that refused to stop hoping.
I don’t want to mislead anyone. In the years after Mitch went missing, I lived a full and busy life. I went to law school, coauthored a law review article that no one read, graduated cum laude, opened my own successful law practice, and, with my husband, raised three children, all of whom were less than five years old when Mitch went missing. Despite losing their uncle, whose absence was itself a kind of presence, and despite being saddled with, I now believe, a somewhat damaged mother, they all graduated from college, married, and had children of their own. My children and grandchildren are all remarkably polite and kind. As far as I can tell, we are no more dysfunctional than the average American family, if there is such a thing.
Only recently have I realized how much energy I expended suppressing horrific thoughts about how Mitch might have died. I avoided war movies and certain songs, and for years, I even resisted visiting the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, DC. Somewhere deep in my heart, I felt that if I saw and touched Mitch’s name cut into that wall, my fragile hold on myself might evaporate and unleash enough grief to kill me. “And if you grieve before you know for certain he is dead,” a small, cold voice hissed in my ear, “you’ll be disloyal.”
Still, at some point in the 1990s, I reached a level of peace with the not-knowing. Or so I told myself.
Once in a great while, I imagined a man my age, skinny, with hazel eyes, with ears that stuck out from his head and a slight bump in his nose, living in a village somewhere in Southeast Asia. Perhaps he had a wife and children. Perhaps he had forgotten how to speak English. Perhaps he was even happy. Perhaps, I feared, I was crazy.
In 1990, the University of Minnesota published Station Bulletin 593-1990: “Measurement of Boundary Ambiguity in Families.” Pauline Boss and two other researchers had developed “a new variable . . . critical to understanding families in stress.” The theory: ambiguity arises when there is uncertainty about who is in a family and who is not. Someone may be physically absent but psychologically present, or vice versa.
When Dr. Boss began to develop her theory in the 1970s, she studied various groups, including families of MIA servicemen. She found, not surprisingly, that “ambiguous losses”—when the fate of a loved one is unknown—are especially difficult to overcome. Grief is often “frozen.” Dr. Boss is the recognized authority on this sort of loss: her many books are available everywhere; videos of her lectures are available online; her theory is well-accepted; and she was interviewed after the loss of Malaysian Airlines Flight 370.
Unfortunately, I didn’t know that Dr. Boss, or her theory, existed until about six months ago. I didn’t know that other people were afraid to grieve because they would be disloyal, but apparently that’s a common response. I am relieved to have learned that what I experienced has a name, but I don’t know if naming the problem, or even seeking therapy, would have helped.
Fortunately, the loss is no longer ambiguous.
After diplomatic relations with Vietnam were restored in 1995, teams of American civilians and military personnel, as well as Vietnamese personnel, began to search for crash sites that might contain the remains of US servicemen. In October 1999, a Joint Forces team working on another case interviewed four men who told them they’d witnessed a C-130 explode in mid-air and crash in flames into the side of a mountain in the Thong Forest.
On September 12, 2000, a joint US and Vietnamese team traveled by vehicle into the dense, inhospitable forest until they could go no farther. They hiked through and over a ten-meter-wide stream, climbed steep hills, hacked their way through vegetation, stopped and picked leeches off their legs, and watched for snakes, wild boar, and tigers. They found Blind Bat 01’s crash site, a large impact crater, overgrown but visible after thirty-two years, and moved carefully because of the risk of unexploded ordnance. They removed some pieces of wreckage, life support material, and one possible human bone fragment. All of the parachutes were still in what remained of the plane. Since the site probably contained human remains, the decision was made to excavate.
Mitch’s remains were impossible to identify. DNA testing didn’t exist in the 1970s, and we didn’t realize that at some future time, his comb or toothbrush might provide vital clues used to identify his remains. DNA from a family member could have been used, but in the case of degraded samples, only mitochondrial DNA, which is maternally inherited, can be used for a match. Mitch had an abundance of living relatives on his dad’s side of the family, but his mother was the only daughter of an only daughter. The Air Force hired a professional genealogist to trace his maternal line. She called and asked if I’d ever heard any family stories about Mitch’s mother, Elaine, but I couldn’t give her any tips, and she couldn’t come up with a female relative to provide a DNA sample.
A relative of one of the missing crew members sent me a blurry photograph of the men standing in front of the plane, and I stared at it for hours, trying to see whether or not Mitch wore his Air Force Academy ring when he went on missions. I scanned the photograph into my computer and enlarged the picture, desperate to see that ring.
Even if his bones had dissolved in the acidic soil of Southeast Asia, even if his dog tags had disappeared, surely the large, clunky ring would have survived.
In March, April, and June 2002, approximately ninety-five Americans and an equal number of Vietnamese counterparts began excavating the site as if it were a crime scene or an archeological dig. The team redirected a stream, cut a landing zone for helicopters, and used sieves to screen the soil. They recovered more possible bone fragments.
The team returned in June and July of 2008, reopened the site, and recovered even more human remains. They excavated to what they were confident was a “sterile” layer. They were finished with the site, closing it after this final visit. They weren’t coming back.
As the team packed up to leave, a villager, motivated by threats or the chance to do the right thing or the knowledge that the small object he’d been hoarding would be worthless once the Americans left for good, or perhaps by all of those considerations plus the transfer of some cash, handed over the precious thing he’d been keeping back for years. It was Mitch’s Air Force Academy ring, engraved with his name and graduation date.
The waiting was over.
Finally, after forty-two years, we could have a funeral.
It took a long time to identify the remains. Airmen whose DNA matches resulted in the identification of their remains had individual funerals. The others had a group burial. The family contact from Mortuary Affairs, who arranged the logistics for the group service, was an amazingly cheerful woman, Sergeant Frazier.
Many civilians don’t realize what a busy place Arlington National Cemetery is, and, of course, the services for recently deceased service members take priority, so there was a scheduling issue. A block of time had to be set aside for the Blind Bat 01 service, and a flyover had to be arranged. Adequate rooms needed to be set aside at a local hotel, and Air Force buses had to be available to transport everyone to Arlington. For the group burial and memorial, all of the next of kin, including wives, parents, children, brothers, and sisters, had to be notified and provided with appropriate paperwork so that travel expenses could be paid. Incredibly, the code to obtain the hotel discount was MORT. The date selected, June 10, 2010, was the forty-fourth anniversary of Mitch and Norma’s wedding.
As I left for Washington, I wrote in my journal that I was crossing my own personal River Jordan. I was entering an unknown land, and I was afraid—afraid of my emotions and afraid of meeting the other families. My oldest daughter traveled with me, and my youngest brother, who was born when I was sixteen and Mitch was seventeen, and who was ten when Mitch went missing, flew in from Colorado with his wife.
On the evening of June 9, there was a full schedule of meetings taking place in various locations in the hotel. Scanning the list, we finally found it: “Blind Bat 01 Reception and Dinner.”
The gathering was being hosted and paid for by Irene Mason, the wife of the highest ranking officer on Blind Bat 01. She was an energetic woman with a charming Southern accent.
“So you’re Tom Mitchell’s family. I’m so happy to meet you all at last. I’ve thought of you so often. There’s an open bar and buffet; just help yourselves and get acquainted!”
After all those years, I wasn’t the only one having trouble letting go. I hesitated before walking into the reception, and the mother of one of the crewmembers told me:
“For years, I expected Tommy to walk through my door.”
“When did you stop waiting for him?” I asked.
“I haven’t. I still think he’ll walk through my door someday.”
One of my fears was that the other families would be shattered wrecks, but when I heard the laughing coming from the room, I realized this reception was a celebration. I had remained friends with Mitch’s high school girlfriend, Joyce, who came with her husband and son. “Do you remember this?” she asked, and showed me the gold heart charm, identical to mine except for the engraving, which she had received on that long-ago Valentine’s Day when we were teenagers who had never heard of a place called Vietnam.
Just before the buffet opened, Irene took center stage. “I am so glad you are all here. All of us have waited so very, very long for this day, prayed for this day, and now we can be here together.”
There were cheers for Irene, and cheers for Sergeant Frazier and the staff of Mortuary Affairs, and the laughing and socializing went on for hours, perhaps, I thought, to fortify us against the sadness that would come with the morning, when the unidentified remains of the men would be buried, together in death as they were in life, with full military honors. Tomorrow, we would walk together behind a horse-drawn caisson carrying one flag-draped military-issue casket. Tomorrow, we would listen to hymns played by the US Air Force Band, hear the twenty-one-gun salute, and watch a C-130 fly over in tribute. Tomorrow, the Air Force chaplain would recite the familiar words of Ecclesiastes and remind us that there is a time to be born and a time to die. Tomorrow, nine American flags would be ceremoniously folded and handed to the primary next of kin by an Air Force general. Norma would accept hers with composure, dignity, and grace. Tomorrow, we would place flowers at the side of the casket, and Joyce would quietly slide her Valentine’s Day charm in among them and leave it behind. Tomorrow, we would cry.
But tonight? Tonight was a time to rejoice together. We knew that the remains of more than twelve hundred of the missing in Vietnam remained to be identified, that other families were still trapped in waiting, but for some reason, we were the chosen ones, the blessed ones, the lucky ones, the ones released. At last, we were free.
The reception included not only family members whose trips had been paid for by the Air Force but also high school friends, friends from the Air Force, the large extended families of cousins and uncles and grandchildren, other C-130 pilots, a hodgepodge of people from all over the United States. Everyone lingered over dinner for so long that the waitstaff was clearly growing impatient, and our hostess announced, “I want you all to head up to the Sky Dome Lounge and see the view of Washington. Drinks are on me!”
The view of Washington, DC, was indeed beautiful. As I was leaving, with the boisterous party still going strong, a man stuck out his arm to stop the elevator doors from closing and squeezed in.
“Boy, I’m here for some dull company conference. That Blind Bat group is having one hell of a party. I’d rather be part of that group!”
“Oh, no,” I said, “you really wouldn’t.”
In the four years since the funeral, I’ve had time to reflect on what, if anything, the waiting taught me, and I’m still reflecting. If I could go back in time and talk to the woman I was at different stages during those forty-two years, what could I possibly tell her that would help? What would I tell the families of the 239 passengers on board the vanished Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 or the families of the estimated three hundred girls kidnapped by Boko Haram in Nigeria? Or the children and grandchildren of the seventy-seven thousand service members who went missing, without a trace, in World War II? Or the thousands of other people, like Joyce, who aren’t officially family members but have nevertheless suffered “ambiguous losses”?
It’s easier to know what I would not tell them.
I would not tell them to move on, because I couldn’t.
I would not talk to them about the stages of grief, because while there is waiting, true grieving is impossible.
I would not tell them to seek closure, whatever that means, because while there is waiting, there is no closure.
I would not tell them they will recover, because I don’t believe I have. But I’m making progress.
This summer, the traveling exhibit of the Vietnam War Memorial came to a park a few blocks from my home in California. The wall is a three-fifths-sized replica of the one in Washington, DC. I clipped a red rose from my California garden—our mother grew red roses around our childhood home, and I’ve planted red rosebushes everywhere I’ve lived—and took it with me when I went to visit the exhibit.
There was a lot going on in the park that day, including a car show featuring gleaming, spotless, beautifully restored old cars. Mitch loved cars, loved to tinker with them, and, in his last letter, wrote about a car and a motorcycle he was taking apart when he was able to get home on leave.
An older man in a VFW hat, about the age Mitch would be now, was posing with three local beauty queens, who were dressed in tiny shorts, high heels, and tight, low-cut tank tops, and he was enjoying the experience immensely. Mitch would have enjoyed it, too, because he was girl crazy as a young man. This is Mitch’s kind of event, I thought.
There are 58,272 names on the wall, but it’s easy to find Mitch’s name. Just walk to the right, almost to the lowest point, almost to the end of the wall. Mitch is on Panel 65E, only a few inches above the ground.
This time, I didn’t even tear up when I saw his name. I left the rose there, I walked away, and I didn’t look back.
Maybe the waiting really is over for me.
Maybe I’m even over being slightly crazy.
I’ll have to wait and see.