Missing in Action

It is a value of possibly all known cultures that the remains of their fallen warriors be retrieved so that they can be buried with all the honor due those who sacrificed their lives for the group. It is also one of the greatest indignities for an enemy to deny such ritualization. Today there are teams of American civilian and military personnel scouring the jungles, mountains, and waters of Southeast Asia for the remains of military servicemen who were listed as missing in action (MIA) from the Vietnam War. In addition, forensic teams are pursuing leads in recovering and returning remains of MIA servicemen from both the Korean War and World War II. These search teams are a direct result of the efforts of the Vietnam-era wives who, unlike the wives of previous wars, banded together to improve the living conditions in which the American POWs were living in. After the return in 1973 of the American POWs in Operation Homecoming, the group's focus shifted to the return of all U.S. prisoners, the fullest possible accounting for those still missing, and repatriation of all recoverable remains.

Military Missing Personnel

The United States' Department of Defense (DOD) lists a military serviceman as MIA if "he or she was not at their duty location due to apparent involuntary reasons as a result of hostile action and his/her location is not known" (Department of Defense 1996, p. 5). In addition, three criteria guide the accounting process for missing personnel by the Defense Prisoner of War/Missing Personnel Office: (1) the return of a live American; (2) the return of identifiable remains; and (3) provision of convincing evidence why the first two criteria are not possible. Since the 1950s the DOD has listed thousands of military personnel as missing in action. There are more than 2,600 American servicemen listed as MIA from the Vietnam War; approximately 8,900 from the Korean War; and an additional 80,000 from World War II. If one considers only the immediate family members missing servicemen, the number of people affected by the MIA tragedy is in the hundreds of thousands.

In past wars, when military personnel were listed as MIA, their status was reviewed after one year according to the Military's Missing Persons Act. A tribunal of fellow military personnel familiar with the war situation was convened. Evidence was presented as to whether the serviceman should continue to be carried as MIA or changed to the status of killed in action/body not returned (KIA/BNR). Most MIA statuses in the Vietnam War were not changed, as had been done in prior wars, because of reliable U.S. intelligence reports indicating hundreds of MIA servicemen possibly being alive and held in captivity. By the 1980s the U.S. government changed all but one MIA to a presumptive finding of death (PFOD), despite the official position that "we cannot rule out the possibility that American POWs or MIAs were left behind at the end of the [Vietnam] war" (The National League of Families, October 1997). The goal of the United States continues to be the return of any live Americans, the repatriation of all recoverable remains, and the fullest possible accounting for those still missing.

Known Death versus Unknown Death

Normally, when one thinks of grief it is in the context of the loss of a loved one through a "known" death. A known death is when a person dies and there is a body that gives physical testimony to that individual's death. For the bereaved, the grieving cycle can begin as the body confirms, against deepest wishes, that the deceased no longer lives in the physical world (Attig 1991). Therefore, when one thinks of a loss it is usually equated with a documented death and a physical body to mourn over.

The missing in action status is unique in that the loss is not final. There is no certainty of death, no "physical body" to identify or mourn over, and no official documentation of the person's death. The MIA situation is similar to individuals who are lost through natural or human disasters (i.e., floods, tornadoes, shipwrecks, or airplane crashes) and whose bodies are never recovered. The difference between the two losses lies in the cognitive realization that death is certain even though there is no body to identify.

Grief and the MIA Loss

When the bereaved learn of the death of a loved one they begin a process of grief and, after a culturally accepted period of time, achieve grief resolution. When the military authorities first notify the MIA families that their loved one is "missing in action" the initial shock is typically followed by the hope for rescue or the known status of prisoner of war (POW). When this hope is not immediately realized, the family members begin exhibiting the first symptoms of the grief cycle, such as shock, numbness, and disbelief (Freud 1917, 1957; Bowlby 1961; Parkes 1970). Thus, the MIA wartime casualty is a paradox. On the one hand grieving is triggered by the MIA loss, which causes the family members to try and make sense of the loss, break their emotional and internal attachments to the deceased, and reintegrate the deceased within one's self, thereby reaching closure. On the other hand, MIA family members have largely been unable to bring grief to closure due to the lack of evidence to support the death and the persistent belief (hope) that the missing serviceman may still be alive. Further complicating the picture is the fear that by letting go and reaching grief closure, the MIA family members are abandoning the missing serviceman. This fear can give rise to feelings of guilt and betrayal. The result is that, for many MIA family members, the grieving process is interrupted and drawn out indefinitely. In the absence of any credible evidence the MIA family members remain in bereavement limbo, "figuratively 'stuck in time' and unable to go forward" (Hunter 1988, p. 312).

The clinical psychologist Pauline Boss argues that MIA families face another type of challenge. She describes the concept of boundary ambiguity in which the family does not know with certainty "who is in" and "who is out" of the family system. Boss posits that as long as there is ambivalence about the role of the husband/father and when the

Motorcyclists, during the eleventh Annual Memorial Week-end Rolling Thunder Rally, ride in protest of the U.S. military's unwillingness to acknowledge prisoners of war and failed attempts to find those missing in action. AP/WIDE WORLD PHOTOS
Motorcyclists, during the eleventh Annual Memorial Week-end Rolling Thunder Rally, ride in protest of the U.S. military's unwillingness to acknowledge prisoners of war and failed attempts to find those missing in action.
psychological husband/father presence is maintained, "the family system, systemic communication, feedback, and subsequent adjustment [to the ambiguous loss] over time are curtailed" (Boss 1977, p. 141). This ambivalence can lead to family members feeling helpless and more prone to depression and anxiety, leaving them poorly equipped to achieve closure to their grief work.

When the Vietnam War officially ended in 1975, some of the wives of the missing were able to accept the fact that their loved ones were probably never coming home—they were dead. Some of the wives eventually remarried and moved on with their lives. But have these wives or their children forgotten the husbands/fathers that they waited so many years for? More important, have these family members been able to fully accept their loss and attain a state of grief closure? Edna Hunter-King suggests that this is not so. The following is an excerpt from a 1983 interview of a wife who had "closed the book and got on with living" by remarrying:

I've come to realize that his remains have not been returned so there is no finality to it. Also, all the news in the papers recently [about the possibility of American POWs still being held in Southeast Asia after the war ended] has upset me. I didn't know I was still vulnerable. ...Whatifhewere still there? I can't even think about it! ... Looking at this thing 10 years later, I feel less removed now than I did, say, seven years after Homecoming. (Hunter 1988, p. 323)

For many MIA families the uncertainty and ambiguity of the wartime loss have transformed the journey of grief from one with a clear endpoint and closure into one of extended, indefinite grief (Hunter 1998). Many MIA family members exhibit patterns of grief, including avoidance, denial, guilt, intrusive thoughts, and preoccupation with the loss. However, because these symptoms are prolonged, they are often misinterpreted as dysfunctional and in many cases can lead to an assessment of frozen, impacted or unresolved grief—all "maladaptive" forms of grief. The MIA trauma highlights the misunderstanding that an ambiguous loss can engender. The ambiguous nature of the MIA loss challenges grief therapists and researchers alike to devise new models of therapies, which may help the MIA families find meaning in the loss, learn to live with the uncertainty, and move forward with their grief.

Several family members have offered the following suggestions to help others move forward in their grief. Family members, relatives, and friends can perform a small burial service wherein personal items associated with the missing serviceman are placed in a box and buried. Others have suggested that, when possible, visiting the physical location of the loss can bring a sense of "realness" and even "finality" to the ambiguous wartime loss. Finally, dedicating a small area in a room and placing pictures, letters, medals, and memorabilia belonging to the serviceman can give meaning to the loss by creating a physical memorial to the missing serviceman, thereby making the loss more tangible.

For most MIA family members, however, the ambiguous MIA loss will be forever troubling and in many cases grief resolution will remain elusive due to the lack of finality regarding the fate of their missing loved one. As the grief experts S. Zisook and S. R. Shuchter wrote in 1986, "There is no prescription for how to grieve properly . . . and no researchvalidated guideposts for what is normal versus deviant mourning. ...Weare just beginning to realize the full range of what may be considered 'normal' grieving" (Zisook and Shuchter 1986, p. 288).

See also: Cemeteries, Military ; Continuing Bonds ; Grief: Overview, Family ; Grief and Mourning in Cross-Cultural Perspective ; War


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National League of Families of Prisoners of War and Missing in Action in Southeast Asia. National League of Families of Prisoners of War and Missing in Action in Southeast Asia Newsletter (September 1997).

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