From a contemporary press report: Monday, May 28, 2001
Peace at last for a family
DNA solves MIA case
Sacrifices etched in city's memory
Howard Comer was young, a gung-ho patriot bent on the idea of making the world a better place by doing his part to fell communism in Vietnam.
For more than 30 years, this was the picture Wanda Babb painted for her son Brian when trying to explain the father he never knew.
Brian Comer was only 4 months old that late fall day in 1969 when his father's helicopter crashed in South Vietnam during a routine mission.
Three men were rescued. Two crew members were killed instantly.
The sixth man, Howard Brisbane Comer Jr. of Jacksonville, was nowhere.
He would remain unaccounted for until this spring, when military scientists used DNA and other techniques to identify his skeletal remains.
His younger brother, Preston Comer, said it was still difficult to believe.
“It's come up several times,” the Jacksonville man said. “But when they said, ‘Where do you want him buried?' not ‘We think we have something' or ‘We might have something,'” the family accepted the findings.
The Chief Warrant Officer, Babb said, will be buried in Arlington National
Cemetery on July 2 as one more of Jacksonville's missing in action can be laid to rest.
Today, Comer will be remembered along with more than 1,500 Jacksonville men and women and the thousands of others who died in service to the country. A Memorial Day observance is scheduled for 6 p.m. at the Duval County Veterans Memorial Wall.
Although Babb doesn't subscribe to the philosophy of closure, the Lake Charles,
Louisiana, woman said there is a measure of relief found in the finality of identification.
“At least I know he's back here and will be honored like he should be and will rest in peace,” she said.
It has been a long 32 years, said Babb, who remarried in 1986 and was widowed again in 1999.
She dealt with the routine calls and letters keeping her abreast of the fact that no new information was known.
She struggled with the promises each new presidential administration would dangle before her.
She coped when a Vietnamese woman claimed to have Comer's remains which she would return for U.S. citizenship. Babb said no.
But mostly, she wrestled with what might have been.
“I think about him daily, every time I look at my oldest son,” she said. “What my life would have been like, where we would have lived, what kind of father he would have been.”
On November 27, 1969, four days after the helicopter went down, Babb answered her door to find three men, all Army, one a chaplain.
The 24-year-old pilot was missing, they explained gently.
Babb, 20, was left alone with a baby and a host of unanswerable questions.
“I'd see pictures of the infantry in there and I thought, ‘Why can't they find him? Why can't they just go in and find him,'” she said of her husband of two years.
Although the family was stunned into a “quiet shock” at the news Comer was missing, Rita Comer said her brother had a feeling he would be killed during the war.
His farewell still rings in her ears.
“When he and Wanda came to visit me and my husband in Lake City, he said he felt like something was going to happen and that he wouldn't be back,” said Comer, who now lives in Jacksonville. “He said, ‘I just want to tell you I love you and that I'm not going to worry about it.' He put it in God's hands.”
News accounts of released prisoners kept Babb's hope buoyed that her husband would come home.
“I was hoping he would see his son,” she said, her voice trailing off. “He never did see his son.”
By the early '90s, three different investigation teams had tackled the case of a fatal crash in the Van Co Dung River that happened as fighting in Vietnam reached its most ferocious stage, said Larry Greer, a spokesman for the Pentagon's POW/MIA office.
Reports surfaced and villagers came forward about the skeletal remains in relatives' attics. Scores of interviews were done and Comer's military identification card was produced. Plates from a U.S. chopper were offered up and slivers of bone were handed over.
Around Christmas 1993, remains later identified as Comer's were sent to an identification lab in Hawaii. It would take eight years of testing and retesting, including a dozen DNA samplings using blood drawn from Comer's mother to ensure the set's completeness, Greer said.
Although using DNA since 1994 and scientists becoming more savvy with the
procedure with each passing year, “it doesn't make the DNA testing on the lab table go any faster,” he said.
On any given day, Greer said, about 500 people worldwide are working to locate and identify missing service members.
As of last month, about 600 missing servicemen from Vietnam had been identified. Another 1,981 remain unaccounted for, he said, adding that hundreds of sets of remains are in some stage of the identification process.
And that makes for 1,981 families who can't let go.
But for the Comers, Rita Comer said, the news of identification wasn't needed to make peace with the fate of the missing pilot.
“My mother is a Christian and after so many years you put closure on it because you know he's in the Lord's hands,” she said. “His remains are not important, it is his spirit that makes him who he is.”
COMER, HOWARD BRISBANE JR
- CW2 US ARMY
- DATE OF BIRTH: 06/04/1945
- DATE OF DEATH: 11/24/1969
- BURIED AT: SECTION 66 SITE 6577
ARLINGTON NATIONAL CEMETERY
Michael Robert Patterson was born in Arlington and is the son of a former officer of the US Army. So it was no wonder that sooner or later his interests drew him to American history and especially to American military history. Many of his articles can be found on renowned portals like the New York Times, Washingtonpost or Wikipedia.
Reviewed by: Michael Howard