COLUMBUS, Ohio –
Rick Buell was in kindergarten when his father went missing Sept. 17, 1972. An experienced naval aviator and married father of two, 33-year-old U.S. Navy Lt. Cmdr. Kenneth “Ken” Buell, was several months into his Vietnam tour as a bombardier navigator flying above North Vietnamese territory. Years later, search teams discovered aircraft wreckage and the remains of U.S. Navy Cmdr. Verne Donnelly – its pilot and only other occupant – but Ken Buell was never found.
Nearly 45 years to the day his father went missing, Defense Logistics Agency Land and Maritime’s U.S. Navy Cdr. Rick Buell, recounted his father’s military career and his family’s search for answers during the annual POW/MIA Recognition Ceremony Sept. 15 at the Defense Supply Center Columbus.
Americans honor the sacrifices of prisoners of war and those missing in action in ceremonies held annually nationwide on the third Friday of September.
The morning’s event opened with the National Anthem sung by Defense Finance and Accounting Service’s Velvet Dean, followed by an invocation given by Dr. Pablo Gonzales, Wylie P. Chalmers Veteran Affairs Ambulatory Care Center chaplain.
Attendees included former Whitehall mayor John Wolfe and Megan Genheimer, the daughter of missing-in-action Air Force Col. Francis Jay McGouldrick.
The focus of this year’s ceremony was on the work of the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency in locating, identifying and returning the remains of missing personnel to the U.S. DPAA manages the records for all of the nearly 82,500 American service members still missing and otherwise unaccounted for since World War II.
Janet Bunnell, DLA Land and Maritime Executive Programs chief and coordinator for the event, said she chose to focus on DPAA in part to illustrate the immense amount of time and effort it takes to get families of those missing – like the Buell family – answers.
Bunnell took the stage for opening remarks and then turned the audience’s attention to the screen for a video highlighting the work of the DPAA.
Following the video, the event’s first speaker, DLA Land and Maritime’s Kristin Molinaro, spoke from a Soldier’s perspective when a comrade went missing during her Iraq deployment. U.S. Army linguist Spc. Ahmed al-Taie was reported missing in October 2006 shortly before his unit was set to redeploy home with 4th Infantry Division. The U.S. recovered his remains in 2012.
Following Molinaro’s presentation, Buell, who serves as an operations officer with DLA Land Supplier Operations, took the stage to speak of his father.
Buell, who has previously declined to speak publicly because he wished to keep his father’s career separate from his own, said he was moved to break his silence because he will be retiring next year.
“The spotlight should not be on me, but on the families as a whole who share losses like mine,” Buell explained.
With his naval career ending, Buell felt the timing was right to share his family’s story.
“My father was lost 45 years ago the day after tomorrow,” Buell began. “That day changed my family forever.”
As Buell recited his father’s case file, he spoke on the updates added to it over the years as the DPAA uncovered new clues on the potential whereabouts of Ken Buell’s aircraft – an A-6 Intruder. In his final mission, the elder Buell was serving as a bombardier navigator on a solo nighttime armed reconnaissance mission from the USS America bound for North Vietnam. The two-man crew lost contact as the aircraft approached North Vietnamese airspace. Seven minutes later, another aircraft operating in the area reported seeing an orange explosion along the route the A-6 should’ve been following. The unit launched search and rescue efforts but had no success.
The case went cold for several years, Buell said.
The restoration of diplomatic ties with Vietnam in the early 1990s, allowed teams from Joint Task Force Full Accounting to begin traveling to the country to follow leads and interview possible eyewitnesses, Buell recounted.
On Feb. 5, 1991, the U.S. announced that remains returned by the Vietnamese were identified as those of Donnelly, the A-6’s pilot. Since then, nearly a dozen Joint Field Activity teams have traveled to Vietnam searching for the aircraft’s wreckage. In 2012, a JFA team excavated an area that was later determined to be the crash debris site. However, they were unable to locate Ken Buell’s remains, and he continues to be unaccounted for, his son said.
“Forty-five years is a long time to not know what happened to your loved one,” said Buell, who was five when his father went missing. “I would be lying to you if I said I haven’t experienced feelings of despair or frustration or anger…as we wait for any news of his return.”
Buell credited his mother, his father’s parents and the support of the National League of POW/MIA Families in their relentless pursuit for answers over the years.
“Because of their efforts, we know a lot more today than we did 45 years ago,” he said.
Subsequent investigations led Buell to believe his father’s remains may be co-mingled with those of the aircraft’s pilot. DNA technology not available in 1991 when Donnelly’s remains were identified may give a clue to Ken Buell’s whereabouts. Buell said he has formally requested the disinterment of Donnelly’s remains to have them re-evaluated by DPAA. The decision on his request is pending.
Today, Ken Buell remains classified as one of 1,602 Americans missing in action from the Vietnam War.
Rather than despair, his son takes comfort in knowing there are those who won’t stop looking.
“You can always find hope. Hope, for me, that is kindled by the knowledge that this nation will never rest until everyone who was taken prisoner or went missing while fighting for their country, will be accounted for,” he said.
Disclosure: The author was a speaker at this event.