The distinctive black flag, depicting a head lowered under a guard’s watchtower, is often seen waving right below the American flag. Black patches with the mottos “You are not forgotten,” “Keeping the promise” and “No one left behind” adorn leather vests, ball caps and bumper stickers across the nation.
The flag symbolizes the efforts of Department of Defense leaders and the commitment of the American public to recover the more than 83,000 Americans still missing since World War II.
To this day hundreds of Defense Department men and women, both military and civilian, work in organizations around the world as part of the DOD’s personnel recovery and accounting efforts.
For the Air Force, this mission is the center of focus for a three-person team of the Air Force Personnel Center’s Air Force Missing Persons Branch at Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph, Texas.
“It’s not just a flag,” said Sandra Kolb, the Air Force missing persons branch chief. “There are a lot of people behind the mission (the POW/MIA flag) represents, who are passionate about bringing all of our service members home from past conflicts.”
The team, led by Kolb, serves as the liaison between government agencies and Air Force families waiting for closure and an end to a wait that has often lasted for decades. Around 1,502 Airmen remain unaccounted-for since the Air Force was created in 1947.
As part of their work missing persons branch members met with those in their care during one of the DOD’s family member update meetings in Indianapolis, Ind., May 19.
It was the 152nd meeting held by the Defense POW/Missing Personnel Affairs Office since the program’s inception in 1995. This particular meeting enabled the missing persons branch to personally brief 22 Air Force family members on eight POW/MIA cases.
“Each of the services sends their representatives to assist in the meeting with DPMO analysts and other DOD agencies and to answer any questions that families may have,” Kolb said. “These questions often include inquiries about recent excavations, site visits and questions specific to their family members.”
While families get the opportunity for one-on-one meetings with DOD officials, some questions can’t be answered right away, said Kolb. Her team, however, makes sure that a follow-up is given in each case.
“One of my goals is to stay involved with our families,” said Kolb, whose office is in daily contact with family members. “I remind them we are committed to looking for their family member and bringing that member home.”
While many case files were assigned a reference number for administrative purposes, the team members agree that each case is more than just historical data.
“When you read about the case, or meet family members, it brings life to the case,” said Kolb, who retired from the Air Force at AFPC. “You are reminded that these are fellow Airmen who were lost, and there are families that have often been waiting for decades for some closure and resolution of what happened to their loved ones.”
Jack Duvall, himself an Air Force veteran, attends family update meetings every year with his family, hoping for more information about his brother, Chief Master Sgt. Dean Duvall, whose aircraft was lost over Laos in 1966.
“Never a day goes by that I don’t think about him,” Duvall said about his brother. “I would like him back exactly as he was, but I realize that (is not possible).
“However, we get an update each time we go to a meeting every year,” Duvall said. “They give us the details of any investigation and do everything they can to make things easier.”
Duvall first started attending the meetings 10 years ago. Today he has all the details of his brother’s case, down to the last radio contact the crew of seven had with their base.
In recent years, a crash site was found in Laos, an excavation was conducted and returned human remains are now being investigated. Duvall hopes the military will soon make an identification.
Over the years, Duvall said he has become well acquainted with a lot of the personnel involved in solving his brother’s case.
“We appreciate greatly what they do,” he said. “By being able to talk to them, in person, it gives a much clearer picture of the difficulties that they face. The only thing is that we wish we could do something to help out.”
Some family members may have a sense of frustration and helplessness after years of waiting, Kolb said, but chances for an identification improve with technology.
“The Air Force has on average 15 identifications per year,” Kolb said. “Every year there is closure for a few families. And when we do have the opportunity to bring closure to a family, working closely with the Air Force Mortuary Affairs Office, that is very rewarding. We are identifying our missing, more and more each day.”
While some attendees, like Duvall, have lived the case since it began, others are just catching up, said Master Sgt. Brent Main, the missing persons program manager. This can lead to heartwrenching moments.
“Especially when children, who have often been too young at the time and have been protected by the surviving parent, just start looking deeper into the circumstances,” Kolb said. “The reaction is almost like they are reliving the initial notification – that stays with you.”
These emotional moments, coupled with the length of work involved in many cases, often develops close relationships between the staff and the families they serve.
For example, during a recent family member update in Dallas, SSgt. Danielle Harris, an AFPC missing persons branch liaison, presented the National Defense Service Medal, Korean Defense Service Medal and Air Force Longevity Service Award to the daughter and primary next of kin of one missing service member.
“It was very touching and hit the heart hard,” Harris said. “I had been working with her and other offices for several months to obtain these decorations, so she could honor her dad. All of us in the Air Force missing persons branch were able to put the biggest smile – and happy tears – on the family’s faces.”
The relationships with the families often last a lifetime for branch members.
“I can’t tell you how many family members come up to me, and speak of former staff members by name,” Kolb said. “And although they were very grateful, they felt an honest loss when some of our staff left and retired.”
Unknown to many families, the commitment to the mission and will to find those who are still missing forms a lasting commitment, said Main. His predecessors still visit the office regularly, he explained, to see what progress has been made and to help current staff with their experience.
“Once you get to the mission and talk to the families, it wraps you up,” said Main. “It’s kinda hard to let it go.”
For Main, the mission behind the flag is an ever-present and leading cause.
“We leave no one behind,” Main said. “No matter what. We are still looking for all those people and we want to find them, and we won’t quit until we do.”
These feelings are shared by all branch members.
“This is the best job I have worked in my 10 years in the Air Force and definitely the most rewarding and heartfelt job,” Harris said. “Every day we touch the lives and hearts of our family members and honor the service of those who made the ultimate sacrifice for our nation.”
It is the passion to one day give closure to the families that drives her own work, Harris said.
“We’re pretty passionate about our unaccounted for service members and making sure people, whether families or other Airmen, understand how important this mission is and that these are Airmen still waiting to come home,” Kolb said. “There is no other mission like it. You are entrusted by the families with the memory of their loved one, to bring them home in an honorable way, and to take care of them (while they wait). There is nothing like it. I know I’m blessed to be part of this mission.”
For more information about the Air Force Missing Persons Branch or DTMO, visit http://www.afpc.af.mil/library/airforcepowmias.asp.