The Bone Collectors

No one knew the dangers better than Lt. Col. Rennie Cory Jr. An imposing Fort Bragg battalion commander with a classic "high and tight" haircut, he headed one unit of the Joint Task Force/Full Accounting Team, the U.S. government's ongoing search mission for the bodies of the 1,966 American soldiers still listed as missing from the Vietnam War. Stationed in Hanoi, Cory and his small crew of servicemen spent day and night scouring the countryside in search of decades-old battlefields and crash sites--going any place they had reason to believe a fallen soldier might lie. Cory tried to prepare his men for the many hazards of the hunt: the murky swamps and leech-infested jungles, the blistering heat and unexploded land mines, the deadly green pit vipers known as two-step snakes because when they strike, that's as far as you get before you die.

But on the morning of April 6, as the team prepared for another day in the jungle, Cory's chief concern was the notoriously fickle spring weather. When a veil of low clouds and misty rain finally lifted, the crew took off in its chartered Russian-built helicopter. (Despite a general thaw in relations, the Vietnamese government still won't allow U.S. choppers into the country.) Some of the unit's most experienced men were on board that day. Air Force T/Sgt. Robert (Marty) Flynn, 35, a boyish linguist who handled logistical operations, spoke flawless Vietnamese and served as Cory's translator. Army Sgt. 1/c Tommy J. Murphy, 38, a good-natured giant at 6 feet 4 and over 200 pounds, was a mortuary-affairs specialist from the Pentagon's Hawaii-based identification lab. Air Force Maj. Charles E. Lewis, 36, a military-history buff trained as an engineer, worked as Cory's deputy. Air Force M/Sgt. Steven L. Moser, 38, served as Lewis's translator. Chief Petty Officer Pedro J. (Pete) Gonzales, 37, an ace Navy diver, worked as the team medic. Also along for the ride was Lt. Col. George (Marty) Martin III, a tough battalion commander who was slated to replace Cory when he stepped down in July.

The men made their way toward Quang Binh province in the south, where the weather is so volatile the local villagers have two names for the 750-foot-tall mountain that rises near the coastal sand dunes. When it's sunny and calm, they call it Mother Cow Mountain. But when the wind blows heavy clouds in from the west, it becomes Source of Darkness. As the men flew south on the afternoon of April 7, they were suddenly swept up in a curtain of fog and mist. Searching for a way out of the haze, the helicopter dipped below 700 feet. Moments later it slammed into the mountain at full throttle, 70 feet below the summit. The chopper exploded on impact, killing everyone aboard.

Twenty-six years after the war ended, the headlines were back: American soldiers killed in Vietnam. Seven Americans and nine Vietnamese lost their lives in an effort to recover men who had been dead for decades. To the military, the Joint Task Force's mission is considered sacrosanct, fulfilling the solemn Army credo to never leave a fallen soldier on the field of battle. "There is no serviceman or -woman anywhere in the world who doubts for a moment America's resolve to care for them if they are lost," says Pete Peterson, U.S. ambassador to Vietnam. The program's longevity may also owe something to our lingering national guilt over the shabby way Vietnam vets were treated when they came home from the war. Back then, returning soldiers were often derided as "murderers" and "baby killers." Now, decades later, the government is still trying to make amends--and the search for missing soldiers is the most visible way for politicians to show families that Washington cares. With a budget of just $20 million a year, the mission is virtually invisible on the Pentagon's books, where many programs are measured in billions. Few politicians want to be seen as insensitive to the plight of MIA families, who have become a small but vocal lobbying group. Over the years "they worked the Hill. They worked the Pentagon. They worked the White House," says former under secretary of Defense Rudy DeLeon. As a result, "accounting for our servicemen has become part of the military business."

Yet even supporters of the program have begun to acknowledge that, at some point, the number of recovered bodies will start to dwindle--and activists must recognize that not every soldier is likely to be found. "I would imagine there's a point, sooner rather than later, when [the Pentagon will] think it should be discontinued," says Sen. John McCain, himself a former POW. That isn't likely to happen any time soon. As former assistant Defense secretary Lawrence Korb puts it, "No one wants to be the secretary of Defense or the president who says 'Stop'."

The program's success rate may be the Pentagon's best argument for keeping up the search. In 1999 the team recovered 36 sets of remains. In 2000 they brought back 24 more. In 2001, before the crash, the team had discovered 23 sets of remains. Overall, the program has recovered 25 percent of the soldiers unaccounted for since the end of the war. Hundreds of hours of work go into each set of remains the team eventually finds, mostly in remote mountainous areas or swamps. To find them, Cory's team--sometimes working from second- or thirdhand tips--had to befriend often suspicious local officials, getting permission to tear up paddies or bring in bulldozers. They called in specialized teams of searchers and anthropologists to carefully excavate the fragile bones and other evidence that could help with identification. The teams often hired local villagers to help pick through buckets of thick mud, looking for scraps of metal or bone or individual teeth--an undertaking the Vietnamese could not afford for their own 300,000 missing. Evidence was shipped to Honolulu in flag-draped cases, where scientists from the Central Identification Laboratory spread the fragments on foam-topped tables like human jigsaw puzzles. Using old standbys like dental records and newer technologies like mitochondrial-DNA testing, the scientists have been able to identify 619 soldiers since 1973.

To those left behind, that kind of resolution can end years of family turmoil. Jim Jefferson was the back-seat pilot in an F-4 fighter plane that crashed just outside Hanoi in 1967. Though the front-seat pilot was captured and later returned home, Jefferson disappeared. It wasn't until Joint Task Force searchers found Jim's remains in 1998 that the family could finally rest. "You have this little thought in the back of your mind--if he's alive, what are we doing to help him?" his brother Wayne, also a vet, says. "That's a burden for you until you get this final resolution." Though most families are relieved and grateful when a missing relative is identified, the Pentagon has found that in some cases relatives don't want to know. "There are families who say, 'I don't want any contact--I put closure to that years ago'," says James Russell, chief of the missing-persons branch of the U.S. Air Force. He maintains two lists in his database on MIAs: families who want updates and those who want to be left alone.

Cory and his team of investigators have now joined the tally of those shipped back to Hawaii in flag-draped cases. The crash is still under investigation, though it seems likely the foul weather is to blame. Pentagon officials say the crash has not derailed the program or lowered its life expectancy. A recent military review endorsed the mission through at least 2007. A new group of searchers is scheduled to replace Cory's fallen team this week. New rules will keep them on the ground--no helicopter flights allowed. After one disaster, the Pentagon isn't about to risk losing still more men in uniform to the Source of Darkness.