Vietnam War: The battle over remains

ARVADA - A Colorado family has spent nearly 50 years hoping to identify remains that the Navy sent home after a loved one died during the Vietnam War.

The family finally got their answer: the remains they buried and believed was their son, brother had been misidentified.

The story begins July 15, 1966.

Mark V. Dennis, 19, was in a helicopter during Operation Hastings when the chopper was shot out of the sky by enemy fire.

Dennis' body was completely burned, according to his death certificate.

His family grieved the loss. Dennis enlisted right out of high school and died two years later.

Everything changed in 1970, four years after Dennis' funeral, according to Dennis' older sister Karen Ann Moline.

The family flipped through a Newsweek magazine and saw a picture of a P.O.W sitting in a Vietnamese jail. The resemblance was striking and the family believed it was Dennis.

"That's Mark. He's not dead," Moline said. "I believe I sat there and kept yelling, 'He's alive!'"

The Navy said the person in the Newsweek article was an already identified P.O.W and not Dennis. His family didn't believe it.

The family exhumed the body sent back by the Navy and were alarmed when experts found major inconsistencies with the remains. The height, weight and age of the remains did not match Dennis' records.

"To be quite honest with you, when we thought he was dead, that I could handle," Moline said. "But then you turn around and tell me or show me that he could have been in a P.O.W cell all this time, and the government couldn't do anything about it? I couldn't stand to let that go."

The Navy exhumed the body for a second time to check if a mistake had been made but stood by its story. Dr. William Maples, a Navy expert, said he came to the "inescapable conclusion" that the remains belonged to Dennis.

The Dennis family exhumed the body a third time.

Dr. Michael Charney of Fort Collins found additional discrepancies noting, "the person represented by these remains is most decidedly bow legged and too far off the height and weight of Mark." Inconsistencies in dental records were also discovered.

By 1972, John H. Chafee, Secretary to the Navy, sent the Dennis' a letter stating he "acknowledged at the outset that certain discrepancies of records do exist," but that "it does not now appear possible to resolve them in any truly conclusive manner."

The Navy offered to bury the remains as Mark V. Dennis at Arlington Cemetery but his family refused, storing what was left of the remains in a box.

In 2014, Moline's son tried once again to identify the remains and sent part of the skull and a tooth to a DNA lab, along with Moline's DNA.

The results showed the remains could not have belonged to Mark V. Dennis.

By March 2015, Navy representatives came to Moline's home in Arvada to personally and finally acknowledge a mistake had likely been made.

"Thank God they found that DNA," Moline said. "Without that DNA, they'd still be telling us that's not possible."

Nearly 50 years later, Moline says it's doubtful she will ever find out what happened to her brother and doesn't know if he died in the helicopter crash or survived as a P.O.W.

She still hopes the Navy will identify the remains sent to her family in 1966.

Carrie Brown, a military forensic anthropologist out of Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska, says the goal of her team is to provide answers for families but cannot say when those answers will finally come.

"Some cases may take 20 years, because the technology just isn't there, and the methods aren't there," Brown said. "But they will be identified."

The guarantee of identification leaves Moline with another question about the Navy's original story about her brother.

"If these people have been doing this wrong all this time, how many other families have suffered?" Moline said.

The issue of misidentified military members exists beyond this case.

In 2010, administrators at Arlington Cemetery were let go after numerous graves turned out to be misidentified.

Officials at the Pentagon discovered more than 200 graves were improperly marked or the remains of people buried in wrong graves.

(KUSA-TV © 2015 Multimedia Holdings Corporation)


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