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Saturday, March 29

Families of those missing in action may face years of uncertainty

By Judd Slivka | The Arizona Republic

Jerry Evert died a captain and was buried a lieutenant colonel.

It was just the 35 years between the two events that were awful for his family.

"Iím hit hard," Evert called out through his radio over Tien Chau, North Vietnam, on Nov. 8, 1967. It was the last anyone heard from the Air Force pilot.

He was listed as "missing in action," a phrase now back in popularity as U.S. troops are captured in the current war with Iraq.

Evert was listed that way from the day he was shot down - just hours before he was supposed to fly home to be at his daughterís birth - until 1978, when the Defense Department changed his status to "killed in action."

"We were grateful that he was declared missing instead of dead," said his wife, Wanda Evert Allen of Chandler, Ariz. "It gave us some hope."

But for 11 years, there were no answers.

Itís that way for many loved ones.

When Marine Lance Cpl. Mike Williams, 31, of Phoenix was declared missing on Wednesday, the Marine officers who went to his motherís home to notify her knew nothing more than that the

31-year-old went missing during fighting near An Nasiriyah. His mother, Sandra Watson, had been in daily contact with the Marines, but they had little news for her.

The Marines came to their house at 1 a.m. Saturday to let her know that Williams had been killed in action

"Mike is with his Lord and in a much better place," Watson said.

The parents of Army Pfc. Lori Piestewa of Moenkopi, Ariz., know about as much as Watson did before her notification, though theyíve had the added horror of seeing video of the aftermath of their daughterís unit being ambushed.

It raises a question: Is not knowing better than knowing?

Dave Allwine isnít sure.

Allwine was a U.S. Army adviser to the South Vietnamese army around the Vietnam-Cambodia-Laos border in 1971.

During a battle, Allwine was shot in the chest, the knee and the shoulder and left on the battlefield. He was captured after almost two days of evading the North Vietnamese.

His wife knew none of what happened, just that he was missing.

"She went through hell," Allwine said of his wife, who died several years ago. "Her worries were a lot worse than mine. I knew where she was, but she didnít know where I was."

Allwine was taken to a prison camp in Cambodia, where he spent about six weeks with his whereabouts unknown until a South Vietnamese soldier escaped and reported who was in the camp.

That message then made it to Allwineís wife, a German who had been in America only two weeks before her husband was sent to Vietnam. "She did some real fast growing up when she came over here," he said.

Wanda Allen never knew what happened to her husband after the "Iím hit hard" broadcast.

He was "missing in action" and then "killed in action."

She raised her youngest child, Elizabeth, on her own. "We use her to date my husbandís death," Allen said. "Sheís 35, so itís been 35 years."

Allen didnít remarry until 1983. Even after her husband was declared dead in 1978, it took a long time for her to get used to the idea that the father of her children wasnít around to raise them.

"My husband was a loving father," she said. "He loved his kids so much. Iím sorry he couldnít see them grow up."

In 2000, the family was told that a plane crash site near Hanoi was going to be excavated.

And in that patch of rice paddy where Evertís F-105 crashed, Allen and her children found answers. There were Jerry Evertís dog tags, his military identification card, his wallet and his identification card from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

They found Evertís body, too, and that was the ultimate answer.

"Knowing he wasnít a prisoner of war for that many years, it was very satisfying to all of us," Allen said. "We found out that what I felt was right. He died instantly. If he was not coming home, that was the best way to go."