After 4 decades, a soldier is home

Remains of city man missing since 1968 in Vietnam are returned to his family

December 03, 2007|By Brent Jones | Brent Jones,Sun reporter

Nearly 40 years ago, representatives from the Army pulled up in two cars at a West Baltimore home and informed a married couple that their second-eldest child was missing in Vietnam.

The soldier, Maurice Henry Moore, had been lost in combat after an attack on his platoon in May 1968. At the behest of his father, Moore was declared dead nine years later, but his remains were not found until last month - a discovery a sister of the slain soldier says should give relatives a measure of closure.

"I have cousins who had the idea that maybe he was still in Vietnam hiding out or living with somebody else," said Sonya Moore, who was 14 at the time of her brother's death. "You don't wonder anymore. It's opening up a can of worms, but it brings some spiritual closing to our brother. He'll be able to rest in peace."

Each year, the U.S. military spends millions of dollars seeking to recover and identify remains of Americans unaccounted for in past wars, including 1,764 still missing from the Vietnam War.

Tomorrow, family members will have a small funeral for Moore, one of nine children born to James and Georgia Mae Moore. Afterward, the soldier will be buried next to his mother, who died in 1976, and a sister who died 14 years ago.

Last week, sitting alongside her elder sister and a longtime family friend, Sonya Moore reflected on her brother's 19-year life and the pain his death caused her parents and siblings in the ensuing decades.

When Maurice was reported missing, his mother became inconsolable, began drinking heavily and died of a brain tumor nine years later.

One of Maurice's younger brothers turned to drugs and died of an overdose in 1986. One sister became an alcoholic and essentially drank herself to death in 1993, family members say. And another sister has been in jail for the past 26 years for her part in a murder-for-hire scheme.

"The family was completely traumatized by it," Sonya Moore said. "Had he lived, I believe things would have been different."

Maurice wasn't the oldest, but he may have been the strongest, Sonya Moore said. He was the one who protected his younger sisters - all five of them - from boys and made sure they got to school safely.

Sonya Moore says her brother wanted to become a special-education teacher and had enrolled at Coppin State before he was drafted. Outside of playing with toy soldiers as a child, Maurice had little interest in the military, she said.

He was called to active duty in January 1968, about five months before the attack.

After the Army officials relayed the news of Maurice's disappearance, his mother never accepted the likelihood that her son died in battle.

Karen Moore, who is the eldest daughter and was 16 at the time of her brother's death, said her mother became an alcoholic, and her drinking took a toll on the younger children, three of whom were in elementary school at the time.

"Our mother was the matriarch of the house," she said. "So the structure just fell apart. My father was working, so he wasn't home a lot of the time. That left nobody with the younger kids. And they didn't listen to me."

Maurice disappeared after Ngok Tavak, an old French fort, came under heavy fire by a North Vietnamese infantry battalion. At least 39 Americans and an unknown number of South Vietnamese military and civilians died during the fighting there and at nearby Kham Duc.

The remains of fewer than 10 Americans who died in the battle have been found.

Sonya Moore keeps copies of a dozen letters sent from the Army during the late 1960s, none of which sounded optimistic about the chances of Maurice's survival.

"This slow and seemingly fruitless task will continue throughout all areas of Vietnam until the status of each of our missing members can be resolved," read one letter dated Feb. 26, 1969.

About two years ago, the Army found Maurice's identification tags, belt buckle, wallet and raincoat, buried deep in the ground. Karen Moore was asked last year to give DNA samples to see whether there was a match with the remains found near the items.

Three weeks ago, Army representatives called to say there was a match, and that his remains were being shipped to the United States.

Family members did not know how to react.

"I had mixed feelings in that I felt that it was long overdue in terms of him being home," Sonya Moore said. "I was angry that he was over there that long, feeling they could have done something quicker, especially when my mother was living. But I'm glad that we can put him to rest."

Maurice's father has not said much about his son's remains coming to the city, Sonya Moore said. James Moore, 80, has internalized his son's death and doesn't want to comment publicly, family members say. He lives in West Baltimore and is expected to attend the funeral.

Ursula Weide, a psychologist and death and bereavement specialist, said pain from the loss of a loved one can subside after many years, but in the case of a missing person, a funeral can still provide a measure of finality.

"The way our minds work, our memories, they're very vivid when we don't get closure of something," Weide said. "After several decades, I'm sure they wonder what happened and thought of him a lot more than they would have. Now, at least some of their questions have been answered. And it's a badge of honor these days to have a brother who served in Vietnam. They can celebrate that."

Karen Moore expects that will be the case tomorrow. She and Sonya sometimes think about how life might have been had Maurice survived.

Those thoughts, though, are for another day, they say. Tomorrow, they'll celebrate his life.

"This service will help. We'll be able to visit my brother now, just like we do our mother," Karen Moore said.

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