MIA families inhabit limbo between faith and fear

March 17, 1991|By Ellen Uzelac WAR IN THE GULF

It was a dramatic numbers game that started with life and ended in death. Last Monday, 10 U.S. servicemen were listed as missing in action in the Persian Gulf. By last night, the count had gone down to five. Today, as more bodies are identified, the number of MIAs is expected to drop to three.

The burials began back home yesterday.

All fliers, all officers. Two had newborns they never held.

For weeks, families of the missing soldiers have inhabited a nether world of uncertainty, a place so empty one mother said: "You don't know whether time is your enemy or your friend. You wake up with it. You go to sleep with it. The questions -- all the questions. All I ever wanted was my son back, Tom, our baby."

Faith and fear sustained the families as, each day, the haunting roll call grew shorter. At the weekend, the MIA families awaited word from forensic specialists reviewing the remains of four U.S. soldiers at a morgue in Dover, Del.: Who would be identified next?

It's grim arithmetic: At the end of the war, 38 were listed as missing. Twelve turned out to be prisoners of war, two were located on the ground, and a wrecked plane that had carried 14 airmen was located off the coast of Kuwait. The Pentagon has said no one could have survived that crash.

That left 10.

As most Americans rejoiced last week at the homecoming of victorious U.S. troops, these 10 families mourned the missing. For some, it was the week the missing finally died.


At dinnertime Monday, St. Louis florist Barbara Wilkins got a visit from the Navy: Her blond, blue-eyed son, Lt. William "Tommy" Costen, her baby, was dead.

Lieutenant Costen, 27, was shot down in his A-6 Intruder on Jan. 18. Lt. Charles J. Turner, 29, was the navigator on the plane. Mrs. Wilkins didn't know whether it was her son's uniform or dogtags that investigators in Saudi Arabia used to tentatively identify his body -- only that he was, finally, dead.

His were among the remains of five U.S. servicemen turned over to the Red Cross by Iraq last week, and the first to be identified. The other four were being identified at Dover Air Force Base over the weekend.

"This is not the answer I wanted, but I needed something physical," said the 57-year-old Mrs. Wilkins. "We have been on a roller coaster for seven weeks. We're off the roller coaster. Tom, our baby, is gone.

"I wanted him back enough that I'll take him this way rather than never know. Now, we can begin the grieving period and begin to mend, and not just hang on the fence and wonder," said Mrs. Wilkins. "You know Tom had five wonderful years [as a pilot]. He said it was the greatest feeling he ever had in his life."

Throughout their ordeal, Mrs. Wilkins stayed in close contact with Lowell and Helene Turner, Lieutenant Turner's parents. Just hours after she was notified of her son's death, Mrs. Wilkins said: "Now, all I can do is pray for the Turners, pray for Charlie."

During the week, Mrs. Wilkins declined to call the Turners at their home in Richfield, Minn., a suburb of Minneapolis. By then, she had begun to lose hope for Charlie Turner, an easygoing 6-footer with an 8-month-old son, Andrew; she didn't want them to sense her doubts.

At one point during the past, crazy weeks, Mrs. Turner became so distraught that she called the White House, looking for President Bush. What she got was a lieutenant at the Pentagon, who couldn't provide her with the information she sought about the disappearance of her son.

"Every day that goes by, our spirits lessen," the 62-year-old Mr. Turner, a retired financial manager, said Monday. "We want either Charlie back or Charlie's body back."

On Thursday, after a City Hall ceremony at which a POW-MIA flag was raised in Lieutenant Turner's honor, his mother said: "We're just waiting for the final word."


Last night, they got the word: Their son, too, was dead.


They may never have known each other, but by cruel coincidence they had much in common: They were the last two Marines on the MIA list. They were declared dead just hours apart. They left behind newborns -- Anne Underwood and Michael Spellacy -- whom they never met.

Capt. David Spellacy, 28, of Columbus, Ohio, was the forward air controller in an OV-10 observation plane that went down Feb. 25, the same day his third child, Michael, was born. Capt. Reginald Underwood, 33, of Lexington, Ky., was downed in a single-seat Harrier jet on the last day of the Persian Gulf war, Feb. 27.

In the weeks after Captain Spellacy was shot down, his family was told alternately by military officials that he was missing in action, that he was in friendly hands and, finally, late Monday night, that his body had been found, according to Daniel Spellacy, his brother. Funeral services for him were held yesterday.

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