MIA families inhabit limbo between faith and fear


It was a dramatic numbers game that started with life and ended in death. Last Monday, 10 U.S. servicemen were listed as missing in action in the Persian Gulf. By last night, the count had gone down to five. Today, as more bodies are identified, the number of MIAs is expected to drop to three.

The burials began back home yesterday.

All fliers, all officers. Two had newborns they never held.

For weeks, families of the missing soldiers have inhabited a nether world of uncertainty, a place so empty one mother said: "You don't know whether time is your enemy or your friend. You wake up with it. You go to sleep with it. The questions -- all the questions. All I ever wanted was my son back, Tom, our baby."

Faith and fear sustained the families as, each day, the haunting roll call grew shorter. At the weekend, the MIA families awaited word from forensic specialists reviewing the remains of four U.S. soldiers at a morgue in Dover, Del.: Who would be identified next?

It's grim arithmetic: At the end of the war, 38 were listed as missing. Twelve turned out to be prisoners of war, two were located on the ground, and a wrecked plane that had carried 14 airmen was located off the coast of Kuwait. The Pentagon has said no one could have survived that crash.

That left 10.

As most Americans rejoiced last week at the homecoming of victorious U.S. troops, these 10 families mourned the missing. For some, it was the week the missing finally died.


At dinnertime Monday, St. Louis florist Barbara Wilkins got a visit from the Navy: Her blond, blue-eyed son, Lt. William "Tommy" Costen, her baby, was dead.

Lieutenant Costen, 27, was shot down in his A-6 Intruder on Jan. 18. Lt. Charles J. Turner, 29, was the navigator on the plane. Mrs. Wilkins didn't know whether it was her son's uniform or dogtags that investigators in Saudi Arabia used to tentatively identify his body -- only that he was, finally, dead.

His were among the remains of five U.S. servicemen turned over to the Red Cross by Iraq last week, and the first to be identified. The other four were being identified at Dover Air Force Base over the weekend.

"This is not the answer I wanted, but I needed something physical," said the 57-year-old Mrs. Wilkins. "We have been on a roller coaster for seven weeks. We're off the roller coaster. Tom, our baby, is gone.

"I wanted him back enough that I'll take him this way rather than never know. Now, we can begin the grieving period and begin to mend, and not just hang on the fence and wonder," said Mrs. Wilkins. "You know Tom had five wonderful years [as a pilot]. He said it was the greatest feeling he ever had in his life."

Throughout their ordeal, Mrs. Wilkins stayed in close contact with Lowell and Helene Turner, Lieutenant Turner's parents. Just hours after she was notified of her son's death, Mrs. Wilkins said: "Now, all I can do is pray for the Turners, pray for Charlie."

During the week, Mrs. Wilkins declined to call the Turners at their home in Richfield, Minn., a suburb of Minneapolis. By then, she had begun to lose hope for Charlie Turner, an easygoing 6-footer with an 8-month-old son, Andrew; she didn't want them to sense her doubts.

At one point during the past, crazy weeks, Mrs. Turner became so distraught that she called the White House, looking for President Bush. What she got was a lieutenant at the Pentagon, who couldn't provide her with the information she sought about the disappearance of her son.

"Every day that goes by, our spirits lessen," the 62-year-old Mr. Turner, a retired financial manager, said Monday. "We want either Charlie back or Charlie's body back."

On Thursday, after a City Hall ceremony at which a POW-MIA flag was raised in Lieutenant Turner's honor, his mother said: "We're just waiting for the final word."


Last night, they got the word: Their son, too, was dead.


They may never have known each other, but by cruel coincidence they had much in common: They were the last two Marines on the MIA list. They were declared dead just hours apart. They left behind newborns -- Anne Underwood and Michael Spellacy -- whom they never met.

Capt. David Spellacy, 28, of Columbus, Ohio, was the forward air controller in an OV-10 observation plane that went down Feb. 25, the same day his third child, Michael, was born. Capt. Reginald Underwood, 33, of Lexington, Ky., was downed in a single-seat Harrier jet on the last day of the Persian Gulf war, Feb. 27.

In the weeks after Captain Spellacy was shot down, his family was told alternately by military officials that he was missing in action, that he was in friendly hands and, finally, late Monday night, that his body had been found, according to Daniel Spellacy, his brother. Funeral services for him were held yesterday.

"I want to know what happened," said Mr. Spellacy, 30, a cook from Columbus. "On the night he went down, I woke up in the middle of the night with this weird feeling in my gut and tears in my eyes. I want to know what time it happened. In a way, it is a relief to finally know. At the same time, we have lost someone who had everything to live for."

There hardly was a time when Captain Spellacy didn't wear a uniform: First, there was the Boy Scouts, then Civil Air Patrol, Air National Guard and the Marines.

"He was a gung-ho Marine," said his brother. "And he died a hero."

At a black-tie Christmas party in Lexington, Ky., family and friends of Reg Underwood videotaped a greeting starring his newborn that they sent to him in Saudi Arabia. Donda Underwood and her daughter, Anne, now 5 months, will bury Captain Underwood tomorrow.

Captain Underwood was a pilot for a Cherry Point, N.C.-based Marine attack squadron known as the Ace of Spades. His body and aircraft were located Monday. "It's awful. We're all stunned," said Nancy Wachs, a family friend. "To think he never saw his only child."


Almost nightly since flight surgeon Maj. Thomas F. Koritz's F-15E Eagle was shot down over Iraq on Jan. 18, his father and great-uncle have huddled around the kitchen table, where they repeat the same conversation.

"I'll ask him if he's heard anything," said Alvin Koritz, 80, about his chats with his nephew, Dr. Thomas Koritz. "He says: 'Not yet.' "

For 20 years, Dr. Koritz has visited regularly with his uncle in Rochelle, Ill., a community of 9,000 60 miles west of Chicago where the two families live a half-mile apart. In happier times, they talked about fishing the Wisconsin River, hunting and the county fair.

Dr. Koritz and his wife, Mary, have three other children. Their second son, Tim, also is an Air Force flight surgeon.

The Koritz family has dealt privately with their tragedy, according to the Rev. Charles Denison, pastor at First Presbyterian Church, where Mrs. Koritz plays the piano at Christmas and Easter.

"They're still hoping," Mr. Denison said Wednesday about the 37-year-old pilot, whose wife and three sons live in Goldsboro, N.C. "Since peace was declared, it has gotten more difficult to hold on to hope. But they just can't say that there is life without their son right now. To them, it would feel like a betrayal."

In the small community of Bastrop in northern Louisiana, barber Douglas Holland kept a vigil for his 42-year-old son, Maj. Donnie R. Holland, who was shot down with Major Koritz. The 17-year Air Force veteran joined the service after teaching industrial arts and drafting at Alexandria (La.) High School, a career his father says he abandoned because it was low-paying. Major Holland's wife and two children reside in Goldsboro.

Speaking in soft Southern tones Friday, Mr. Holland said: "I miss my boy. I don't know anything else. We're just taking it a day at a time."

Yesterday, the Air Force notified Mr. Holland that his son's remains had been identified at Dover. "A footprint; that's how they identified Donnie, a footprint," his father said.


At the Rock Island, Ill., Rotary luncheon Tuesday, the president of the group lifted his glass, looked toward a familiar face in the crowd and said, "We haven't heard from Dr. Phillis today, but we want you to know you and your family are in our thoughts and prayers."

In the audience, Dr. Richard Phillis simply nodded.

Since Feb. 16, when 30-year-old Capt. Stephen R. Phillis was listed as missing after his A-10 was shot down, his hometown of Rock Island on the Mississippi River has thrown its support behind his family.

Dr. Phillis and his wife, Diane, have received hundreds of letters and calls of support and encouragement. At Alleman High School, where Captain Phillis was valedictorian in 1978, students offer prayers before each class for his safe return. A 1982 graduate of the Air Force Academy, Captain Phillis, a bachelor, was one of the first U.S. pilots to arrive in Saudi Arabia last August.

It's been a difficult time for the Phillis family. A younger son, Michael, a Navy Seabee, also was in the Persian Gulf, as was a son-in-law.

"I guess we're hoping against hope now," the Rev. Daniel Mirabelli, a family priest, said Wednesday. "This is such a special boy -- no pretentions, never abrasive, so intelligent and so curious. Faith is what's carrying the family now. When you look at the momma, that's the difficult part. You just look in her eyes and you see the hurt."


Lt. Cmdr. Michael Scott Speicher -- a 33-year-old Navy pilot, father of two and Sunday school teacher -- was the first American combat casualty of the Persian Gulf war. The Jacksonville, Fla., native has been listed as missing in action even though Defense Secretary Dick Cheney said he had perished when his single-seat F/A-18 Hornet fighter-bomber was shot down by an Iraqi surface-to-air missile over Iraq.

On the street where the Speichers live in Jacksonville, neighbors have continued to hold on to hope. "The only way we'll ever have answers is when he's declared dead," Thomas Mills, the godfather of the Speicher children, said Thursday. "We just have to cope and go on. Life doesn't stop. You just learn to live with it."


In the home movies, Barry Cooke is 6 years old, and he's running around a park, arms spread wide. He's an airplane and he's flying.

Since Lt. Cmdr. Barry T. Cooke's attack plane was shot down over Iraq on Feb. 2, his brother, Bruce, keeps flashing back on the little boy in the movie. "We don't know where he is. We don't know how he is," said Mr. Cooke, an information services manager for a computer company in Austin, Texas. "We come up with questions a hundred times a day. Everything has happened so fast. We still have shreds of hope that we'll get him back."

The 35-year-old Navy pilot has twins, who are 4, and a 13-month-old son. He and Lt. Patrick K. Connor, a 25-year-old bachelor, were stationed at Oceana Naval Station in Virginia Beach, Va. Lieutenant Connor grew up in Columbia, Mo., where his father, William, managed the bookstore at the University of Missouri. The Connors moved to upstate New York six years ago.

On Thursday, Bruce Cooke, 32, quietly recounted his private horrors and private hopes.

"The worst part was seeing the happiness of the returning troops. You want everybody to return," he said. "It's been devastating. Our biggest hope was that he was a POW. When HTC the POWs were released and he wasn't one of them, we died all over again.

"The war ended, and we were left hanging. On TV, every time I saw an A-6 take off from a carrier, or any plane at all, it would bring out the emotions all over again. I stopped watching TV. All we have left is hope. We know that if anybody could survive the situation, he could. He's the one to do it," Mr. Cooke said. "For now, that's all we have."

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