MONTICELLO, Ind. (AP) – For nearly 50 years, all Jack DuVall knew was that his brother Dean left an Air Force base in South Vietnam in 1966 and never returned.
“We did not hear anything from that point on to speak of. Each year, we would get an annual update. It would be almost word for word from what it was the previous year,” he said. “It never changed. It was almost the same. I called it a rubber stamp.”
DuVall was a college student when he learned his younger brother was missing in action at the age of 20. Dean was onboard an AC-47 gun ship on a mission to Laos, which borders Vietnam to the west.
It took nearly four decades for U.S. government officials to locate the plane’s crash site and nearly 15 more years to excavate it. It’s still unclear what caused the plane to crash into the side of a mountain near a small village in Laos’ southernmost Xekong province.
The White County resident recently received a 150-page report, documenting the 2,400-square-meter excavation completed in 2014 and its findings – dog tags, watch bands, belt buckles, buttons and even a human tooth. None of it, however, definitively linked to Dean.
“I think we’re going to have to accept that this is his final resting place,” DuVall told the Journal & Courier (http://on.jconline.com/1xw8Zg6 ) during a recent update on the search at Sitka Baptist Church in Monticello, where he’s been a member since 1972.
The half-century struggle to locate his brother’s remains led DuVall and his family across the country, as they regularly attended status updates held about 10 times a year in various cities. They’ve learned to grapple with the U.S. and Laos governments, the latter setting strict regulations on when and how long crews could excavate the site.
In Pittsburgh in 2010, the family learned that human remains had been located. But in Minneapolis in 2014, their hopes came crashing down: Of the testable remains found, none was Dean’s. The family has yet to hold a memorial service.
“He’s never given up the search,” said James Elliott, the pastor at Sitka, where DuVall has hosted several similar updates over the years. “He knows his brother is deceased, but having closure with the remains, it’s been consuming.”
Even more consuming could be DuVall’s battle with leukemia and prostate cancer, which requires daily trips to Logansport for chemotherapy. Yet the farmer is out every morning to take care of his animals and the first to volunteer at the church, which recently needed roof repairs.
“He’s worked hard all the days of his life, seven days a week. Always has a smile, very generous and kind,” Elliott said. “He’s the head deacon at our church. He’ll do anything. He’s the first guy on the roof at 71 years of age.”
In person, DuVall is proof that time can’t heal all wounds. Wearing a POW/MIA tie and button attached to the lapel of his blazer, he expertly explained the intricate details of the case as a packed church sanctuary intently listened.
The maxillary molar found during the excavation typically comes in from ages 8 to 10, he said, and the grating that eventually uncovered it was a quarter-inch wide. Anything wider, he noted, and the tooth would have fallen through; anything less and the dirt and sand wouldn’t properly sift.
The attention to detail is just one way DuVall keeps his brother’s memory alive. Dean’s absence left him with an empty feeling – a void that over the years he’s attempted to fill, starting when he joined the Air Force a month after his brother went missing.
“He wants to do everything he can to find out,” said DuVall’s wife, Ruth.
But he isn’t the only who’s struggled to come to terms with the loss. Kay DuVall-Martinez, the youngest of DuVall’s five siblings, was 11 when a school official came into her class to tell her Dean was missing. Since then, she’s clung to hope.
“I don’t know if I’ve come to the grips of losing him,” she said with tears in her eyes.
The crash site has been closed by the U.S. government with the release of the report. The family is in the process of planning a service for the long-lost son, brother and husband.
“Some people ask, ‘How do you feel?’ I said, ‘It’s almost like from when you hear the death of a close relative or close friend, and it’s that period of time between the hearing of the death and then the funeral.’ ” DuVall said. “We’re still in between.”
Information from: Journal and Courier, http://www.jconline.com