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    Story by Petty Officer 2nd Class Claire Farin 

    Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency

    Dressed in my crisp Navy dress blue uniform, I hauled my camera gear to one seemingly quiet and daintily-lit room at the Hilton Hotel in Dearborn, Michigan. The room looked overly serious, gilded with a long rosewood table and several classic, black chairs. My heart pounded as I rushed to set up my camera to record one of the most important events of the day. I have covered countless regimented military events in my career before and I kept telling myself this wouldn’t be very unfamiliar. This will be simple, and I will easily gracefully scramble inside, do my job, and move on. But this meeting was far from ordinary.

    Last September, the Underwoods decided to join a family member update in Detroit hosted by the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA), the U.S. government agency dedicated to searching for and bringing our nation’s missing back to their families. At the conference, families get real-time one-on-one updates about the identification processes regarding their missing loved ones. The Underwood family is among the many families who still wait for a family member to come home. Their loved one, 2nd Lt. Donald Underwood, a Michigan pilot whose plane crashed during World War II, has been missing for over seven decades. Both of his parents have passed without witnessing his homecoming. His next of kin, and only brother, George came to the event.

    As the room filled with curious, warm chatter, a framed photo of the fallen airman was displayed on the table. 90-year-old brother George, his daughter, and son-in-law slowly sat themselves. Katie Rasdorf, a historian and volunteer with History Flight, a Florida-based group; Danielle, a family friend; and U.S. Marine Corps Col. Mike Gann, DPAA Director for Asia Pacific Operations, were also present.

    “How’s your day going so far?” asked the casualty service officer, one of several personnel in charged with providing information to the family about the agency’s accounting process in the Underwood’s case.

    “Good.” George nodded. “Peachy dandy,” he added and blurted a good laugh.

    I caught myself listening to their rather pleasant conversation, and in a split second reminded myself to press the record button on my DSLR camera. I moved around, positioned my camera adjacent to George, and slightly next to U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell, who has worked closely with the family throughout the process.

    “I know you wanted to come down, meet and sit with us and have a one-on-one discussion. Is there anything you wanted to learn from us today?” the officer continued.

    “I wanted to complain but there’s nothing to complain about,” replied George. “I think people are really working great to help out to find these bodies, remains… people missing.”

    “Thank you for saying that and I’m glad you feel that way,” the officer replied. “I have been overseeing your brother’s case… and I have some news for you today.”

    The rest of the room sat still, silently anticipating the remainder of the conversation. I continue to record. And, to satisfy my own fondness of human connection and curiosity, I too wanted to hear the rest of the dialogue.

    “Today, the officer continued, it gives me great pleasure that the remains that have been recovered by History Flight have been positively ID’ed as the remains of your brother, 2nd Lt. Donald Underwood.”

    Old George gasped deeply as tears welled up in his eyes. Seeing the family in disbelief, I, the outsider, choked up too and felt the raw and intense vulnerability of being human; my eyes watered. For the first time, the family finally heard what they were waiting for. The 90-year-old man lived to hear the great news that their lost mother and the rest of the family always wanted to hear.

    “I just wished Mom was still here,” George uttered.

    “Seventy-three years later, Uncle Donald is coming home,” said George’s daughter, wiping her tears with her hands.

    “To be honest with you, I find it hard to believe!” George shouted in complete surprise. Just when they thought they were running out of luck, a gleam of hope sparked.

    The conversation about the search and recovery went on. Col. Gann listened intently, nodding his head, his face looking firm but full of empathy. He is a member of the agency’s leadership who repatriated the remains of our fallen military personnel from Kiribati, and one of the remains belong to the fallen pilot.

    That day of reunion was definitely surreal and pleasant day for the Underwoods. It is easy to give up hope, but the family didn’t, the History Flight volunteers didn’t, and DPAA personnel didn’t.

    That day is a true example of not giving up hope, to hold on and to keep going. The Underwood’s can now speak hope and share their story to other families that, like them, one day their loved ones will no longer be called missing but finally found and home to their motherland.

    As I finished up with the day’s schedule, I realized how truly extraordinary it was. To witness the fulfillment of a family’s longing, to recognize our shared humanity, I became more connected, more vulnerable, and my job became more meaningful, and that day has directed my lofty longing of a purpose. Just then I realized, I’ve allowed myself to come home as well which made me more grateful for that encounter and the brand new mission that awaits me.



    Date Taken: 09.09.2017
    Date Posted: 12.31.2017 05:21
    Story ID: 261032
    Location: DETROIT, MI, US 

    Web Views: 339
    Downloads: 2