TAMPA -- The University of Tampa professor whose efforts to track down her father's remains took her to Vietnam last weekend has returned home and is now in a war of words with the military agency that recovers the remains of missing troops from the communist nation.
Patricia O'Grady was in the Quang Binh province in Vietnam during the Memorial Day weekend. She said she witnessed Vietnamese workers carrying her father's remains from a grave near a large star fruit tree in the jungle.
However, the Joint Prisoners of War, Missing in Action Accounting Command, known as JPAC, denies any remains have been found and said an excavation at the site has been suspended largely because of O'Grady's presence there.
"The JPAC and Vietnamese team had only made initial steps in working the site," said agency spokeswoman Elizabeth Feeney in an email to The Tampa Tribune. "No evidence was recovered before the suspension" or afterward.
"The bottom line is that accounting for our nation's MIAs is a long and complicated process that often takes years to complete," Feeney wrote. "Every MIA American is entitled to one certainty: that he or she will not be forgotten."
O'Grady said she knows what she saw and believes the villagers who told her the remains of her father had been recovered.
In a written response to the JPAC statements, O'Grady said the agency was not there when the remains were recovered by Vietnamese workers and that she "was the only American on-site at the time of the recovery of the remains."
O'Grady said JPAC's statement that no remains were recovered before work was officially suspended is true.
"What I witnessed was recovery outside of the official recovery process after the suspension," she said, "and when there was no U.S. presence on-site."
She said her father's remains are with Vietnamese authorities who won't release them until August.
O'Grady said she arrived in Vietnam on May 21 and talked to two former North Vietnamese Army soldiers who were escorting her father, who was injured when he parachuted from his downed fighter, to a prison camp in April 1967. He died along the way, and the soldiers buried him in the forest, she said they told her.
The notion that teams from both countries cooperate on excavations of missing American troops is not true, O'Grady said. She said the Vietnamese government "exerts ironclad control over every aspect of the excavation, acting unilaterally in all regards." She acknowledged she was pressured by the Vietnamese team to leave the site.
All of this has some of the O'Grady family steamed at her, the oldest sibling, saying she shouldn't have interfered with the excavation.
"We have a very viable site that needs to be excavated," said Terry O'Grady, who lives in Brandon, "and it was interrupted because of her conduct. She was disruptive, belligerent and she interfered. For her protection -- they wanted to arrest her -- they stopped the excavation, and that's unfortunate."
U.S. Air Force Maj. Phillip Ulmer, director of public affairs for JPAC, on Thursday confirmed that the O'Grady recovery excavation was suspended "due to increased concern about the safety and well-being of a family member of an unaccounted-for Vietnam War service member."
He said the recovery team closed the site and preserved it for a future mission "and is now working at an alternate site."