Six years ago this month, Petty Officer Neil Roberts, a U.S. Navy SEAL, fell out of a stricken helicopter during Operation Anaconda in Afghanistan. According to a Pentagon report, Roberts survived the fall, then held off Al Qaida and Taliban fighters for over 30 minutes, firing a belt-fed machine-gun. The terrorists finally overran Roberts’ position and killed him at close range, after his gun jammed.
Believing that Roberts might still be alive, U.S. special forces mounted two rescue attempts. Six other Americans—including two airmen—died in the fighting that followed. The battle finally ended with the recovery of Roberts’ body, the evacuation of other casualties, and Air Force gunships raking the area with cannon fire.
The effort to rescue Petty Officer Roberts typifies the military credo of “leave no man behind.” It’s the same spirit that motivates the search for those listed as missing in action, a process that continues years (even decades) after they disappear.
That sort of heroic effort is providing closure for two more American families. The remains of Army Staff Sergeant Matt Maupin were recovered in Iraq last week, almost four years after he vanished. Maupin—then a Private First Class—disappeared after his convoy was attacked in Iraq on 9 April 2004. He was subsequently promoted to Sergeant, and later, Staff Sergeant.
Sergeant Maupin, an Army reservist from Batavia, Ohio, was the only American still listed as missing-captured in Iraq. Maupin’s family learned of the recovery on Sunday, with a phone call from President Bush and a visit from an Army general.
Half a world away, a similar search resulted in a final homecoming for Major Robert Woods. The Air Force pilot was shot down in June 1968, while flying a visual reconnaissance mission over South Vietnam’s Quang Binh Province. Woods and his co-pilot, Captain Johnnie C. Cornelius, were reported missing in the crash of their O-2 Skymaster. Their remains were discovered last year and identified by the U.S. military.
"Dad's gift to us is that he is bringing all of our family together again," Woods’ daughter told the Arizona Republic. "All of us are scattered, all went our own ways and have not seen each other for many years. Now I'll be looking forward with mixed emotion to April 9."
Searching for missing service members is costly, time-consuming and frequently frustrating. Thousands of U.S. military personnel remain missing from World War II, Korea and Vietnam, and for the vast majority of those families, there will never be any closure. In many cases, their loved ones disappeared in areas where locating and recovering remains is nearly impossible, or there’s simply no place to begin the search.
Some have even argued that process is too expensive and creates false hopes among relatives of the missing. If you don’t believe us, consider the take of various Yale faculty members on the issue, articulated in a campus newspaper article that followed Operation Anaconda. We’re guessing that none of the professors quoted in that 2002 story have ever served in the military.
In response, we'd say that you can’t put a price tag on final resolution for the families of missing military personnel. Sergeant Maupin, Major Woods and Captain Cornelius went to war with the knowledge that their country would do everything possible to bring them home again. We have the same obligation to all military personnel who remain unaccounted for, with no regard for the expense, or how long it might take.