Of all the research I've done to date, perhaps the most important is the forensic genealogy I do in conjunction with the Army's portion of the repatriation efforts of the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command (JPAC). Though many don't realize it, "no man left behind" is much more than an expression. The U.S. military genuinely does all it can to recover soldiers from all conflicts, and for more than a decade, I've had the privilege of contributing to cases pertaining to WWI, WWII, Korea and Southeast Asia.
My role entails finding the soldiers' next of kin as well as particular relatives to potentially provide DNA reference samples to help identify remains, and as an Army brat whose father served in Vietnam, I can't think of any more meaningful work. It gives me a deep sense of satisfaction each time one of "my boys" (I tend to get a little possessive, and even though it's tempting to think of the soldiers as elderly men since they mostly lived and died before I was born, I remind myself that the majority barely made it past their teens) is identified and buried.
Recently, I was asked to speak about this work and found myself struggling with how to convey the considerable scope of this initiative while not losing sight of the sacrifice of each individual soldier. I ultimately decided to create a wall of honor featuring names of those whose cases I've had the opportunity to research and then single out selected soldiers to tell their stories. Veterans Day seems an appropriate time to share a portion of this.
You probably haven’t heard the name Walter Cichon, but if he hadn’t lost his life in Vietnam, there’s a good chance you would know it. He was the charismatic lead singer of a band called The Motifs, and one of the many who aspired to be like him was a young fellow named Bruce Springsteen. Here’s what Springsteen had to say about Walter Cichon when introducing his song, “The Wall,” at a concert: “Uh, the lead singer was kinda this, this beautiful guy that had this really, very funky and unusual voice, and, and the thing that was important was that you could get up close to them, and they didn't mind us, but, you know, pushing the girls away in the front and standing all night in front of them and, and watch them how they were playing and, and what they were doing. There was two brothers, they were called the Cichon brothers. One was Walter and, and one was Ray. Ray was the guitarist. And they were incredibly uh, important to, you know, the early stages of early development. They were there at the end of the night. You could talk to them and they could show you how to do things and ... I wrote this song for Walter, Walter Cichon. He … was killed in Vietnam. This is a song I was down ... [clears throat] I was in Washington, I was visiting the wall, and I wrote this, wrote this for him.”
Due to all the twists and turns family dynamics can take, a soldier’s next of kin can occasionally wind up being someone who never knew of him. Such was the situation with Homer Lee Sisk. His case was the first one that necessitated my cold-calling a stranger to explain that he had a previously unknown brother who was killed in Korea back in the 1950s. This peculiar circumstance has occurred twice since then and it always makes for an interesting conversation. Homer Lee Sisk was identified, and it speaks volumes of his freshly discovered relatives that the entire family of the younger brother I located flew from California to Virginia to attend his funeral at Arlington National Cemetery.
The majority of cases I research involve the Korean War or WWII, but there are plenty of exceptions. Thomas D. Costello was the first WWI soldier whose family I tracked and I had the privilege of attending his funeral at Arlington National Cemetery. Pvt. Costello was born in Tuam, Ireland, and relatives on both sides of the pond now know of his sacrifice. Though many women serve in the armed forces, this hasn’t always been so, so all of my cases – which involve conflicts up to and including the Vietnam War – have centered on men. Except one. Harriet Pinkston Engelhardt lost her life serving the Red Cross in Europe in WWII. To get a sense of the potential this remarkable young woman from Alabama had, read a few of the letters she sent home.
So many who serve the United States are foreign born or the children of immigrants so my sleuthing over the years has involved Belgium, Cuba, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Mexico, the Philippines, Poland, Sweden, and Ukraine. Allan Eric Haglund’s family was from Finland and I had the good fortune when researching his case to secure the help of an outstanding Finnish genealogist. It was only after his relatives had been located that she informed me that she lived in the very house the soldier’s family had once resided in. Five million people in Finland and I had tripped across this woman. Clearly, this is a soldier who wanted his story told.
My motivation and the reason I love what I do is my father, now retired Colonel George C. Smolenyak, seen here during his tour in Vietnam handing out soap. I was a little girl when he served, but I still remember crossing the days off the calendar until he came home. We’re the lucky ones because he did come home, but the work I do is a small part of an important initiative for those who didn’t and whose loved ones were left wondering. We say “no man left behind,” and I love that we mean it. Thanks for your service, Dad.
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