Byron Kent Kulland – First Lieutenant, United States Army

Ronald Page Paschall
Specialist 4, United States Army

John Wesley Frink
Chief Warrant Officer, United States Army

 From a contemporary press report:

In her lifetime, Ruth Paschall probably wondered often how much grief one person could be expected to endure. Her older brother’s bomber was shot down over the South Pacific in WWII, and Army never recovered his body. 30 years later, her son’s helicopter was shot down over South Vietnam, and during Ruth’s life they never recovered his body.

“Even with me,” her husband Mark Paschall said, as he stood outside the entrance of Arlington National Cemetery April 29, 1994, “I was on a Navy ship that went down during WWII, and quite some time passed before she knew whether I was alive or dead. She definitely paid her dues.”

Paschall, 79, was at Arlington National Cemetery to see his son, Specialist Ronald P. Paschall, finally put to rest. His daughter, Janey Peyton was there with her husband David Peyton, both of Everett, Washington. But his wife was not at the ceremony where her son’s remains were interred in a single grave with two other soldiers. She died Jan 23, 1993, less than a month before the Army notified the family that they identified her son’s remains among these recovered from a site in the Quang Tri Provence of Vietnam.

Two other soldiers were buried with Ronald Paschall, a native of Lynwood, Washington; First Lieutenant Byron K. Kulland of Stanley, North Dakota, and Warrant Officer John W. Frink of Truth or Consequences, New Mexico. They were all assigned to F Troop, 8th Cavalry, 196th Light Infantry Brigade.

According to Army investigators, on April 2, 1972, 3 soldiers were on their way to assist in a search and rescue mission as part of a 4-man crew aboard a UH-1H helicopter. They were shot down by enemy fire en route, and Specialist Jose A. Astorga, gunner on aircraft, was the only crew member to survive. He was one of the prisoners of war returned to the US in 1973. Astorga told investigators when he was released that the aircraft exploded as he crawled from the wreckage, and it was likely that his crew mated died during the blast as they were pinned inside. But Army officials weren’t sure.

They didn’t search the ground at the time because of hostile fire in what was believed to have been the crash site. However, Mark Pascahll said most of his family was “99 percent” sure that his son perished in the explosion. “But Ruth could never really let go,” he said. “She died of heart attack, but I believe this whole ordeal had something to do with it.”

Getting the Army’s verification helped the rest of the family. “I think we handled it better than Ruth, but not having the remains still kept us all from putting closure to his life,” Paschall said. Harlan Kulland, Byron Kulland’s oldest brother, agreed. He traveled to attend the ceremony in Arlington National Cemetery with his father, Harold Kulland of Newtown, North Dakota; sister Karen Wallgren on Wadena, Minnesota; and brother Lee Kulland of George, Iowa. His mother, Nina Kulland, died of cancer in 1974. “Originally all of us were very optimistic,” he said. “We didn’t think the helicopter burned, and that maybe there was a good chance they were captured. My mother even made a photo album up with his pictures and hung it on the wall. That was her way of getting through that period.”

But when the prisoners of war were released in 1973, and Astorga described the crash, “we basically knew the outcome,” Harlan Kulland said. “But we wanted something tangible to fall back on. We needed the ceremony.” Frink’s sister, Avery D’Beq of Albuquerque, New Mexico, also attended funeral but not want to comment about her family’s 22-year ordeal. Today, 2,233 American families of Vietnam veterans hover in that uncomfortable state of nonresolution from which the Paschalls and survivors of Kulland and Frink recently merged. The United States has been working to resolve the cases of missing and unaccounted-for soldiers since 1973, but it’s been a slow process. Government officials weren’t allowed access to Southeast Asia throughout much of the 1980s, and had to rely instead on Vietnamese officials to hand over remains. But is has gotten easier in recent years for forensic teams from the US Army General Identification Lab and Joint Task Force on Full Accounting to gain access to isolated burial and crash sites.

The teams spend an average of 7 to 30 days digging through areas that range from flat fields to ridges that they must climb hand-over-hand to collect artifacts. It was on one of these excavations in the summer of 1993 that the Army uncovered the remains of Paschall, Kulland and Frink. The Central Identification Lab wouldn’t talk about what was recovered, but it was only enough to identify one of the three soldiers, hence the group burial. But anthropologists were able to identify the group by relying on associated remains, the aircraft identification plate, Astorga’s testimony, dog tags of two of the soldiers and an X-ray match of one soldier’s tooth. They were able to identify Frink, and his family has planned a separate funeral for May 25, 1994 in Albuquerque.

Army Mortuary Affairs representatives gave a report to each family explaining what the lab found and how anthropologists made an  identification. Mark Paschall said that the report helps his family, but leaves other families questions unanswered. “What about those families who have nothing but 20 years of speculation to go on?” he asked. Harlan agreed, “Some word is better than none, and late is better than never,” said the former Marine. “It’s definitely about time. I think politics held things up, but I knew once they starting working on it, it would only be a matter of time.”

About 90 guests followed the flag-draped casket, led by six white horses, down the winding paths of Arlington National Cemetery to Section 34. The Army Chaplain said a few words after “Taps,” nine members of the Byron Kulland Chapter 487 of the Vietnam Veterans of America saluted the casket, soldiers fired volleys and the band wrapped it up with several refrains of “American the Beautiful.”

But amid all the pomp and circumstance, the family members spent much of the service staring wearily out onto the cemetery’s slopes. “It was almost like going to a reunion where it’s been a long time since you’ve seen someone, and you try to remember the last time that you saw them,” Kulland said. “I thought about the last time I saw Byron, before he went overseas. And I thought about how when we were kids, we used to wrestle. I could take him, but I could never make him give up.”

Perhaps the Army will take note of this persistence, in its quest for fullest accounting of Vietnam veterans, he said. “Those 2,000-plus families, they’ve got to keep asking the question or they won’t get any answers,” he said. “Keep on em, they’ll continue to get funding and they’ll keep going back.”

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