Although the government lacked evidenceSat Aug 26, 2006 22:42Although the government lacked evidence that Michael Brellenthin was
dead, its assumption that he was dead outweighed Mrs. Brellenthin's
assumption that he might be alive. "The attitude of the government on
these cases," said Sampley, "is that if you can't prove that the
remains are not of a particular individual, then they must belong to
the individual the government says they belong to."
Even if individuals are able to prove that remains can not be
positively identified as belonging to a specific person, the government
will not accept that as proof. The only opinion it values in forensic
cases is its own.
The case of Air Force Lt. Col. Thomas Hart is a specific example of
this. Hart's AC-130 aircraft was shot down in Laos in 1972 with 16 crew
members aboard. In 1985, the government told his wife, Anne Hart, that
it had found her husband's remains during a crash site excavation in
which she had participated.
Mrs. Hart was immediately skeptical, especially when the government
said it had identified 13 of the 16 crewmen. Mrs. Hart decided to have
her own analysis done on the seven tiny fragments of bone, which could
be held in one hand, the government said constituted the remains of her
Dr. Michael Charney of Colorado State University, who has nearly 50
years of experience in anthropology, analyzed the bone fragments. "It
is impossible," Charney wrote in his report, "to determine whether
these fragments are from LTC Hart or any other individual, whether they
are from one individual or several, or whether they are even from any
of the crew members of the aircraft in question."
Mrs. Hart refused to accept the remains and sued the government,
challenging its identification procedures. Mrs. Hart's challenge
produced additional criticism of the Army's Central Identification
Laboratory (CIL) in Hawaii and the the techniques it uses in
Some scientists, including Charney, charged that CIL deliberately
misinterpreted evidence in order to identify remains. They said that
the Army consistently drew unwarranted conclusions about height,
weight, sex and age from tiny bone fragments. "These are conclusions
just totally beyond the means of normal identification, our normal
limits and even our abnormal limits," said Dr. William Maples, curator
of physical anthropology at Florida State Museum.
Among the egregious errors cited by Charney was a piece of a pelvic
bone that the laboratory mistakenly said was part of a skull bone and
was used to identify Chief Master Sgt. James Ray Fuller, who was on the
same AC-130 aircraft as Hart. Procedures at CIL were revamped shortly
after that, but there continues to be concern about the accuracy of its
There are recurring charges that the U.S. government, in an effort
hastily account for as many missing men as possible, is stretching the
bounds of credibility when it comes to identifying remains.
One such case involves Sgt. Richard Fitts. Fitts was a passenger on a
Vietnamese Air Force CH-34 helicopter near Tchepone, Laos, on Nov. 30,
The crew of the helicopter was Vietnamese. The American passengers were
part of a team assigned to Command and Control North, MACV-SOG, U.S.
Army Special Forces. The mission was classified then and remains
Other Americans aboard the aircraft included Sgt. Arthur E. Bader, Cpl.
Gary R. LaBohn, SSgt. Klaus D. Scholz, Major Samuel K. Toomey, Cpl.
Michael H. Mein and 1st Lt. Raymond C. Stacks.
The helicopter was hit by 37mm anti-aircraft fire and crashed in flames
near a stream in heavy jungle. No ground search was initiated because
it was in a denied area. No survivors were seen.
In March, 1988, the crash site was excavated by a joint Lao/U.S.
technical team and human remains consisting of 17 teeth and 145 bone
fragments, none measuring over two inches, were recovered.
On Jan. 3, 1990, the U.S. government announced that the remains of
Fitts had been identified and returned to his parents. That
identification was determined by the government's conclusion that two
of the 17 teeth belonged to Fitts. They were buried in a separate
casket in Boston, Mass.
The remaining 15 teeth and 145 bone fragments were said to be
unidentifiable. But on Feb. 8, 1990, the Pentagon announced the
remaining Americans had been identified and would be buried, along with
the Vietnamese crew, in a mass grave in Arlington, Va.
Fitts' name was included on that tombstone along with the other
Americans because the Pentagon believed some of the bone fragments
belonged to Fitts. "What it amounts to is a mass burial, sort of like
what Stalin did," said Sampley. "If you can't prove it's a particular
individual, just say the remains are unidentified. Don't just stick a
name on it."
But that's exactly what the government did in the case of Master Sgt.
Frank Parrish in 1973. According to Faires, it was decided that the
remains belonged to Parrish because they were of a Caucasian of about
the same age and medical equipment was found nearby. "There was nothing
forensically (proving) it wasn't Parrish," said Faires.
Parrish had been accompanied on the fatal patrol by another Special
Forces team member, Sgt. 1st Class Earl R. Biggs. The Pentagon says his
remains were returned earlier. But the family of Sgt. Biggs must now be
wondering, just as Johnnie Parrish wondered 17 years ago about his
brother Frank, whether it was actually Sgt. Biggs it buried.
As for the remains that were interred in Sgt. Parrish's grave, what
little is known about them, according to government documents, is that
they belonged to an individual who was held prisoner for several years
before being executed.
Was that Biggs? Was it Parrish? Or, was it one of the more than 2,000
men still unaccounted for in Southeast Asia?
The government says it doesn't know and has sent the remains back to
Hawaii for further identification. Who knows what unsuspecting family
they will be sent to next for burial?
Sgt. Frank Parrish was buried for the second time in Rose Hill Cemetery
in January, 1990 in a simple ceremony. There was no honor guard this
time to salute him, no grieving widow to accept the flag that covered
The Army says Sgt. Parrish's widow, who has since remarried, refuses to
comment on the mixup, but that is an excuse the government conveniently
hides behind when it is trying to avoid publicity about an embarrassing
The families of Biggs and Parrish bore their grief 17 years ago when
they were told their men had died. Now, that grief has been compounded
by inexcusable Army inefficiency.
The families will forever be burdened with the question of whether or
not the remains they buried actually were those of their loved ones.
Paul Warren is a veteran journalist who has covered the POW/MIA issue
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