Missouri Family Criticizes Efforts to Recover MIA Remains

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MONETT, Mo. -- Capt. Thomas Hubert Wolfe's family has quietly cooperated with the U.S. government for 50 years since the Monett man's plane was shot down over Laos during the Vietnam War.

But no more.

Wolfe's two daughters as well as his sisters are going public with their private grief: concerns that the U.S. Department of Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency has had Wolfe's crash site identified and recommended for excavation for more than a decade but has not yet deployed a team to search for his remains.

"The family was content to be patient and trust that the government agency would make their selections of which cases to pursue fairly," said Valarie Wolfe, who was only 9 months old when her father died in that crash. "We see now that our patience and faith has been misconstrued as lack of interest."

Wolfe's family members said they have learned that it takes more than cooperation — it takes a public push by family, friends, fellow officers and politicians, they say — to move POW/MIA cases forward for action by the country for which those such as Wolfe rendered the ultimate sacrifice.

"We just want closure on this," said Wolfe's youngest sister, Margaret Salsman, who still lives in Monett. "He did volunteer for the service ... and we just want him brought home," she said as tears welled in her eyes.

Wolfe was a Monett High School graduate and star athlete who became the man of the family when his father died at a young age.

It was a double blow then to his mother, two sisters and brother when Wolfe died at age 28. Wolfe also left behind a widow and two young daughters who had little time with him before he was killed. His oldest daughter, Elizabeth Herrera, now of Pensacola, Florida, was 4 years old then.

Wolfe's hometown rallied around the family after his death, and later, after a local VFW post was chartered, it was named for him.

His family held a meeting last weekend at that post — the Tom Wolfe Memorial VFW Post 4207 on U.S. Highway 60 in Monett. They asked the 50 or so people who attended to write their congressional representatives in support of a search so that Wolfe's remains can be repatriated if they can be extricated.

Wolfe and two other pilots were killed in an armed reconnaissance mission over southern Laos on June 28, 1966. He was flying as air controller on an A-26A that crashed in the mountains 10 miles north of Ban Phakat, Laos, when it was hit by enemy fire. Two other crewmen died with him: Capt. Charles Dudley, and the navigator, First Lt. Anthony Cavalli.

A fellow pilot who served with those men and was Wolfe's roommate, Zack Pryse, now of Ponca City, Oklahoma, is working with the family to try to get an excavation.

"They know exactly where these remains are, and they keep pushing it back," Pryse told those who attended the VFW meeting. "It's not one where they have to comb the area to find the site. They know exactly where it is."

Valarie Wolfe said her father's case seems to be moving down the priority list rather than up.

For years, the government said the Laos MIA sites could not be searched because the country was littered with unexploded ordinance from the "secret war." That was the nickname given to the Laos infiltration the CIA conducted as a covert operation even though there was an agreement that the U.S. would not fight in Laos. The U.S. forces were sent there to back up the country's existing royal government fighting the communists and to interdict traffic on the Ho Cho Minh Trail, a munitions supply line for North Vietnam.

There also were political obstructions throughout the years by the Laotian government.

In 2012, the family learned that Defense Department records did not indicate that the family was actively interested in recovery of Wolfe's remains. That's why they have now taken their appeals public.

Recently, a new roadblock was raised, Wolfe's daughter said.

"We learned our site is near top of the list but is not being considered because of a new policy on cluster sites, in which sites geographically close together are being dug because it speeds the process up. In other circumstances, this might be understandable. Unfortunately, time is not on our side."

She said the family has been told it is unlikely Wolfe's site will be seriously considered again for excavation until 2020.

Lt. Col. Holly Slaughter, public affairs spokesman for the Department of Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, said in response to an email inquiry by the Globe that, "The only information I have about Capt. Wolfe's case is that it is on our approved excavation list, but the excavation is not currently in the plan for fiscal year 2016 or 2017."

She said the agency is currently searching for the remains of approximately 33,000 Americans. There are 83,000 missing from wars and conflicts dating back to World War II, but most of those were lost at sea.

"The recovery and return of all service members remains a top priority to us and for all Americans," Slaughter said.

Debi George, commander of the VFW Post in Monett, said she has launched a post inquiry through the VFW's legislative liaison. As a result, U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., has put in a congressional inquiry about the case, she said.

Blunt has been providing assistance on the issue, said his spokesman, Brian Hart.

"Sen. Blunt has sent a letter to the Department of Defense requesting they expedite this process," and is in contact with the Wolfe family, Hart wrote in an email.

Action has become important because time is eroding the memory of the lost pilot, according to both Valarie Wolfe and the VFW commander.

"We are so proud this family is moving forward because the generations are going away that know about him," George said. "Even in our membership, there are very few members that knew him ... With people passing away, you lose this information as time goes on."

There are 83,000 service members still missing in action from U.S. wars and conflicts. Of those, about 73,000 are from World War II, and approximately 50,000 of those were lost in deep water and are considered unrecoverable.

Also still missing are 7,820 from the Korean War, 1,619 from the Vietnam War, 126 from the Cold War and six from recent actions.

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