08/04/2011 08:50 am ET | Updated Oct 04, 2011

JPAC Expands Search For Missing Vietnam Servicemen

Forty-one years after his helicopter crashed in Vietnam, George “Andy” Howes
finally made it home to Knox, Ind. for a proper funeral, the Department of Defense reported Tuesday.

Bringing home the remains of missing servicemen, like Army Chief Warrant Officer Howes, is part of the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command’s increasing push to expand its search effort in Vietnam. JPAC is racing to identify the estimated 1,800 missing servicemen in the region before their remains are lost to acidic soil and land development and while their relatives are still alive, said Ron Ward, JPAC casualty resolution specialist, at a meeting for families of POW/MIA in July.

Howes’ parents died before they could bury their son, according to ABC, but friends, family, veterans and strangers gathered at the Knox Community Center to pay their respects on Tuesday night.

“Some have asked me, ‘Why expand the accounting effort now? Are you guys still doing that?’’ Ward said. “These, obviously, are questions from people who don't realize we are at a key juncture in the bid to reach the desired accounting end-state in Vietnam.”

Since 1973, the remains of more than 700 Americans who served in Vietnam have been identified and returned, according to the Defense Prisoner of War Missing Personnel Office.

Howes’ story underscores the organization’s recent advancements and areas in which it can improve.

While returning to his base in Chu Lai, South Vietnam on Jan. 10 1970, 19-year-old Howes, and three aircrew members encountered severe weather, crashed and neither the helicopter nor the crew were found, according to the Department of Defense.

“He didn’t need to be on the mission that he was lost,” Vic Bandini, a fellow pilot, told the Post-Tribune. Bandini explained that Howes volunteered to fly extra missions beyond the medivac flights.

In the early 90s, according to the Department of Defense, a Ho Chi Minh City local turned over Howes’ dog tag, a clue that usually disappoints. Of the 10,000 dog tags that have been retrieved in Vietnam since 1975, only 2 percent have belonged to missing servicemen, Maj. Carie Parker, Department of Defense spokesperson shared with McClatchy Tribune.

Though the box of human remains that would ultimately be identified as Howes’ was found back in 1994, it wasn’t until 2008 that the conclusion was made. By using dental comparisons and mitochondrial DNA, which matched Howes’ siblings, scientists from JPAC and the Armed Forces DNA were able to make the declaration, according to the Department of Defense.

Advocating to get him home then fell on family and Vietnam veteran groups, the South Bend Tribune reported.

“This is a defining moment for our family, to feel and experience the warmth and outpouring of support. It is not only for my brother, it is for all the veterans who served, and all that died or who continue to be missing in Vietnam,” said Andy Howes’ brother.

Advancements in DNA testing have played an integral role in the identifying process, but JPAC continues to find ways to innovate its efforts. Operating with a $48 - $50 million annual budget, JPAC plans to expand the number of excavations it pursues and use oceanographic survey ships in its search, Ward noted in his July speech.

While Ward is confident that JPAC is poised to complete the mission, veteran groups are concerned that the government may stand in the way of garnering critical intelligence, The Washington Post noted.

Before leaving office, Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates directed “a reassessment of what is minimally required” to increase the capacity of the POW/MIA accounting community.

Veterans are concerned specifically about the U.S.-Russia Joint Commission on POW/MIAs. It has helped U.S. investigators by granting them access to Russia’s central military archives and interviews with potential eyewitnesses.

A coalition of veterans said in an editorial that without the commission, it will be “nearly impossible for our government to locate information and/or remains to help determine the fates of hundreds, if not thousands, of Americans who may have perished in the former Soviet Union or in the lands of their allies during World War II, Korea, Vietnam and the Cold War,” The Washington Post further reported.

Parker noted in The Washington Post story that funding for the commission has not been cut “to date" and that funding for the division that supports the commission has increased 14 percent over the last six years.

But for the families of missing veterans, no price can be put on laying their relatives to rest.

“Yes, we have closure,” Andy’s brother shared with the South Bend Tribune. “And validation.”

Howes will be buried at Arlington National Cemetery on Aug 5.