St. Louis Public Radio News
Thu December 17, 2009
Special military unit seeks to bring the missing home
By Rachel Lippmann, St. Louis Public Radio
St. Louis – Roslyn Walker Bourgeois's green eyes soften when she speaks of her older brother.
"Michael was wonderful," says the native of a small northeastern Louisiana town who now spends most of the year on a winery near Columbia. "He was my protector. We loved to dance. He played a little football in junior high, but he was a basketball player. He was just an easy-going, lovable person."
For reasons Roslyn never determined, Michael enlisted in the Air Force after high school. He was 27 years old, with two children, and on his second tour of duty in Vietnam when his fighter jet crashed into a mountainside in southeastern Laos in July 1969.
Roslyn has yet to bury him, 40 years later. (Story continued after slideshow.)
The family knew Michael was flying missions in Laos, a country with which the United States was not officially at war at the time. Roslyn's wondered - sometimes still does - if the Air Force or Army did not send a rescue team after her brother for that reason.
"When you read the report of what was seen at the crash site, yes, logically, you read it and you go, that was brother's body and he is dead," she says. "You just keep hoping that something else, the evidence, will come back."
The emotional roller coaster is a familiar ride for Judy Prevedel Larouere. Her brother Charles turned five the day Judy was born. Despite the age gap, they were close.
"He was an avid hunter, trapper, what I would picture as a mountain man," Judy says. The family lived mostly in North County, which was rural back then. "He did karate and judo, and had a lot of friends from those activities." She remembers her brother protecting her from the dogs they had to pass to get to their school bus.
Charles initially entered the Army as a draftee. But Judy says he felt at home there, re-enlisted, and joined the Special Forces. Charles was on patrol with South Vietnamese troops in April 1969 when the reconnaissance team was ambushed. He was 25.
The Army declared him dead in September 1978. But without a body, Judy says, the family could not believe it.
"It was just a paper," she says. "I think Dad was, in his mind, was thinking that once he signed the papers, he was giving up."
Judy eventually concluded her brother was likely dead. It was the job of the Department of Defense's Joint POW-MIA Accounting Command - J-PAC - to answer the question for sure.
The years-long process of identifying Charles's remains unfolded like a combination of the History Channel, CSI, and Law and Order. Research teams dug through Vietnamese and American archives. They talked to witnesses, took photos, excavated a creek bed, and conducted DNA tests.
The "knock on the door" came in 2004. A J-PAC officer presented Judy with a book of all the evidence they had on her brother's case. The teams were convinced they had located Charles Prevedel.
Judy was persuaded. But it took a while. Her parents adopted Charles from the St. Ann's Infant Asylum when he was two. He would never be a genetic match to the family. And since it was a closed adoption, the family never knew his birth mother's identity. J-PAC teams were able to locate her, but they never told Judy how.
A pair of eyeglasses was the selling point. J-PAC had them tested. The prescription matched her brother's.
Charles Prevedel is now buried near his parents at Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery.
"You would have thought anyone would have given up on a long time ago," Judy says, still somewhat in awe. "In fact, you see incidents of people today that lose family members that are lost, abducted or some such thing and the searches don't go on with the intensity that this search did."
Many families of missing soldiers have a similar reaction, says Army Lt. Col. Todd Emoto, who oversees the command's operations in Vietnam.
"I don't know that there's any amount of time or any amount of money that you could sit down in front of Congress or any family member and say, this is an unreasonable amount to bring home someone who served their country," he says. The command's budget is about $106 million a year; "decimal dust" in a billion-dollar Department of Defense spending plan.
Somewhat ironically, it's time that is the command's biggest enemy. Witnesses die, or their memories fade, says Emoto. Remains decay, especially in Vietnam.
"The idea obviously is for us to account for as many as possible," he says. "Sometimes that equates to actually finding physical remains. In some cases, certainly, all we can do is provide as much information to the family as we can."
Right now, information is the only thing available to Roslyn Bourgeois. The situation is made harder by the fact that J-PAC has identified and returned the remains of her brother's co-pilot. Reports indicate a Vietnamese witness might be holding Michael's for ransom.
But she keeps a hold of the hope that the command will someday bring her back her protector.
See an example of the documents family members receive during ongoing searches:
>>Full report (PDF document)