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Gone, never forgotten [Commentary]

Maryland native Joseph Gantt joined the Army at 18, serving with distinction as a Sergeant First Class in the South Pacific during World War II, even though the military segregated him because of the color of his skin. Gantt had redeployed to the front lines of Korea in December 1950 as a field medic with the 2nd Infantry Division when his unit was overrun by enemy forces. Gantt was thrown into a prison camp and reportedly died there in March 1951. But his wife, Clara Gantt, refused to lose faith. She never remarried, hoping that he would come home someday.

Army private Heren Blevins of Hagerstown was on the Korean frontline at the same time as Gantt. The 19-year old was wounded in battle and captured by the enemy. The conditions in the POW camp were brutal, and Blevins grew sick. Fellow servicemen said he died of malnutrition within a month of his capture.

Neither family, however, had any evidence of their loved ones' fates until last year when the remains of both Gantt and Blevins were retrieved and returned to the United States to a hero's welcome — including posthumous decoration with the Bronze Star in Gantt's case — and burial with full military honors.

Stories like these remind us today that war is still not over for some families whose loved ones were classified as missing in action or as prisoners of war who never returned home. In the Korean War, which ended 61 years ago this week, 8,000 service members were classified as POW/MIA like Gantt and Blevins.

The primary agent for POW/MIA recovery is the Joint Prisoners of War/Missing in Action Accounting Command (JPAC). Operating in the largest forensic laboratory in the world, JPAC scientists at Hickam Air Force Base in Hawaii use DNA sampling to determine the identity of service members from bone fragments, remnants of dog tags and personal effects — all of which are over a half-century old. JPAC teams travel the world to scour old battlefields, POW camps and military base locations. Archaeologists section off the sites in 4 meter by 4 meter areas and sift through every grain of dirt for evidence of remains, living true to the U.S. military credo of "leave no man behind." JPAC's operations remain unique in the world.

Today, there are currently over 1,000 active JPAC cases from the Korean War and an estimated 27,000 recoverable remains from all wars. Retrieving the remains is an apolitical act. The one exception is North Korea. JPAC reached an agreement with North Korea in 1993 and recovered 220 sets of remains. In 2006, the George W. Bush administration suspended JPAC operations because of concerns about the safety of the excavation teams. President Barack Obama maintained the suspension until reaching an initial nuclear freeze agreement with North Korea in February 2012. But President Obama reinstituted the suspension following North Korea's missile launch in April 2012.

There are strong political arguments against continuing JPAC activities in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea: The United States should not engage with such a heinous regime, JPAC teams are potentially in harm's way should a crisis escalate, and the United States should not pay money to an enemy to recover the remains of our soldiers. In addition, questions have recently arisen regarding inefficiencies in JPAC's internal operations.

Clearly, whatever problems exist in the operation of JPAC must be remedied, but these political arguments mean little to the families who have waited for over a half century to welcome their heroes home. The only way to know whether North Korea would welcome the restart of this humanitarian operation would be to offer to do so.

Working together to bring home these soldiers can aid a process of reconciliation between two militaries that technically still remain at war, despite a 61-year ceasefire. With regard to the payments that JPAC teams must disburse for lodging, fuel and labor in a host country, this money pales in comparison to the ultimate sacrifice that these brave soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines paid for defending their country. When remains are recovered and positively identified, the families are contacted and the soldiers are eventually buried with full military honors at Arlington National Cemetery or in their hometowns with their family members. You cannot measure honor in financial terms. Closure should be afforded to relatives with long-missing family members.

Patrick Cha is A Chevy Chase resident and the author of "You are not Forgotten: Stories of Korean War Veterans" (2012); a longer version of this article first appeared there. His email is patrickecha@gmail.com.

To respond to this commentary, send an email to talkback@baltimoresun.com. Please include your name and contact information.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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