Talking Proud --- Military

2nd Lt. Donald Matocha, USMC, Mission Complete Sir!

"The reality is, no other country does this:" Bringing America's missing home


On February 9, 2006, The Military Channel presented the documentary, "An Ocean Away," which follows the return of US Marine Lt. Donald Matocha's remains from Vietnam to Smithville, Texas. While viewing this film, we were struck by the respect and honor given the remains of our returning military by those associated with the US Joint POW-MIA Accounting Command in Hawaii, JPAC. We have assembled a photo gallery that demonstrates this noble endeavor.

By Ed Marek, editor

February 10, 2006, republished on June 23, 2017
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Addendum, June 23, 2017: I received a note from Marc Washburn in which he said, "Lt Matocha, indeed all Aggies, who have died are remembered in a unique, beautiful and emotional ceremony called 'Muster' - held every April 21st around the world." I was not aware of this. This time-honored tradition began in 1903. Muster takes place in about 320 locations worldwide. "Softly call the Muster, let comrade answer, 'Here!' " Here are a few photos.

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Addendum, November 25, 2007: We have received photography of a JPAC team searching for two F-4 Phantom crew-members who disappeared in 1967 in North Vietnam, about 40 miles from the China border. Sgt. Rob Danford went to Iraq, and re-enlisted so he could join JPAC, saying: "I love it. I put my heart into it. I do this to benefit the families and the organization and myself.”

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Sgt. Lihn Bui, an American-born translator for JPAC, looks for remains of two airmen missing since their F-4 Phantom fighter jet crashed in rural Vietnam in 1967. Photo credit: Ashley Rowland,
Stars & Stripes

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Vietnamese workers pass buckets of dirt from a hilltop dig site to a sifting station, where they and JPAC team members will look for bones and teeth in the dirt. Photo credit: Ashley Rowland,
Stars & Stripes

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At the end of a day of digging, Master Sgt. Scott Riker examines debris the JPAC team found after a day of digging in Vietnam. Riker is a life support investigator who can identify what kind of debris the team finds. Photo credit: Ashley Rowland,
Stars & Stripes

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Capt. Kristoffer Mills, head of the JPAC mission in Vietnam's Lang Son province, looks at an object he found in a mud sifting station. Photo credit: Ashley Rowland,
Stars & Stripes
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Original story

On January 25, 2006, we alerted our readers to a new Vietnam War documentary, "An Ocean Away," that debuted on The Military Channel on Thursday, February 9, 2006 at 8 p.m. ET.

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This film was produced by
Arrowhead Film & Video of Austin, Texas, specifically by filmmaker Patrick Fries, a man whom I consider a great American for the work he has done to document the service and sacrifice of our men and women in the Vietnam War. The film was commissioned by the Discovery Channel , and, I hope that it decides to permit Arrowhead to sell the DVD of this documentary following its showing on the Military Channel in February. All Americans need to see this and absorb it.

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This documentary follows the return of US Marine Donald John Matocha's remains, missing for three decades, to his family in central Texas, and the subsequent journey of his sisters and those with whom he fought to the battlefield in Vietnam where he died. Lt. Matocha led a Marine reconnaissance patrol known as "Team Dallas Girl" to the top of Dong Ma Mountain near the former DMZ. Their mission was to knock out an enemy observation post. He was killed there in a violent ambush, and his comrades were forced to make the most difficult decision to leave him behind. Efforts the next day to retrieve him failed.

A North Vietnamese soldier, Nguyen Van Loc, buried the lieutenant at the scene and, three decades later, led the US Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command to the site. In the film, he meets with Matocha's two sisters and veteran Marines at the burial site and battle scene in a most moving event.

Arrowhead Films kindly provided us a promotional copy of the film as a professional courtesy. It is an emotional, highly sensitive, professionally done and healing documentary that at once will make you cry and steam with pride.

Cheryl Fries, the wife of the film-maker, Patrick Fries, has talked to us about this film and agrees that among the most poignant sections was that which dealt with preparing Lt. Matocha’s remains in Hawaii to be returned home, to Smithville, Texas.

I have, in the past, expressed my contempt for the way anti-war protesters have assembled and presented mock burial, coffin, and empty boot scenes to convey to the American public how many souls we have lost in the Iraq War, as if Americans don’t know and don't care, as if these protesters are the only ones in the know and the only ones who care. I have found these presentations to be disrespectful to the fallen and to all those who do so much to assure our fallen heroes come home with the dignity afforded by a grateful nation.

I am, therefore, very excited to be able to highlight for you the beginning of the “An Ocean Away” documentary, that part which provides insights to how Americans handle the remains of our fallen military forces when they arrive at Hickam Air Force Base (AFB), Hawaii, specifically how they are handled by the United States Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command , known as JPAC. Its motto is:

"Until they are home."

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JPAC was activated on October 1, 2003. Its mission is to achieve the fullest possible accounting of all Americans missing as a result of our nation's previous conflicts. Its highest priority is the return of any living Americans that remain prisoners of war.

JPAC was created from the merger of the 30 year old U.S. Army Central Identification Laboratory, Hawaii, and the 11 year old Joint Task Force - Full Accounting. This 425-person organization, commanded by a flag officer, is committed and dedicated to bringing home the nation's service members and civilians who made the ultimate sacrifice. It is a jointly manned unit with handpicked Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Marines with specialized skills and Department of the Navy civilians who make up about 25 percent of the organization. The laboratory portion of JPAC, referred to as the Central Identification Laboratory (CIL), is the largest forensic anthropology laboratory in the world.

JPAC is faced with the challenges of 78,000 missing Americans from WWII, 8,100 from Korea, 1,800 from Vietnam, 120 from the Cold War, and one serviceman missing from the Gulf War.

What you will see here are photos of video clips from the “An Ocean Away” documentary.” We present it to you to show the remarkable respect our people at JPAC demonstrate when handling the long lost remains of our lost forces. While we know about and deeply appreciate the enormous scientific and research talents JPAC members and their associates bring to their work, their respect for the remains is emotionally overwhelming and a source of incalculable pride.

The photo gallery I am about to present is drawn from the film, "An Ocean Away." You are about to get a seldom seen look at the inside of JPAC and how its remarkable Americans treat our soldiers’ remains. It is very important to see the film, hear the voices, see the movement and motions of people, and share in the deep emotions involved. We can only give you a pin-prick sense for what actually goes on. We are most grateful to Arrowhead Films & Video for enabling us to present this gallery to you, and applaud the Discovery Channel for commissioning the film and the Military Channel for airing the entire film in February.

The gallery of respect and dignity ...

The remaining photos are clips drawn from the video, "An Ocean Away," produced by Arrowhead Film & Video and commissioned by the Discovery Channel.

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The aircraft bringing the remains of fallen military forces to Hickam AFB is met by an honor guard specifically trained in the proper procedures and protocols. The aircrew that flew these remains home is similarly trained and there are many protocols followed aboard the aircraft before, during and after the flight. In the foreground of this photo, you see a Marine to the left and a soldier to the right; standing next to them is a sailor on the left and an airman on the right. The American flag is draped over each casket containing the remains, with the field over the left shoulder. At the head of the casket, in this case, are the other honor guards at parade rest, standing by the caskets for which they are responsible.

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The four honor guards crouch in unison, one gives the command to "raise casket," and then gives the command to "center face," after which they turn in unison to face forward, in this case to face the rear of the aircraft, and then comes the command, "forward march."

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Waiting outside the aircraft are more honor guards, two at the exit point from the aircraft, a color guard detail carrying the American flag and a flag of each of the military services, in order of precedence, and a vehicle waiting to take the remains to the JPAC. This goes on all the time, whether anyone else is watching or not.

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As the casket exits the aircraft, the detail commander outside issues the order, "Present arms," at which time all military people salute and civilians place their right hand over their heart, or if wearing a hat, place their hat over their heart. The honor guards will render their salutes slowly and in unison. The color guard will lower all flags except the American flag.

During the presentation of arms, an honor guard rifle squad renders a rifle salute, executed in unison on command. Credit: Photo clip drawn from the video, "An Ocean Away," produced by Arrowhead Film & Video and commissioned by the Discovery Channel.

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There are seven men in this rifle team. It is important to know that a rifle salute is not the same as a 21-gun salute, even if 21 shots are fired. The rifle salute traces its origin to the days when a halt to fighting was needed to remove the dead from the battlefield. Once each army cleared its dead, it would fire three volleys of seven rounds each to indicate the dead had been removed and they were ready to resume fighting. In this particular film, we clearly detected two volleys, but perhaps there were three. The rifle salute is, of course, a signal of great respect. But it does not constitute a 21-gun salute.

A 21-gun salute is fired by cannon and is reserved in honor of a national flag, the sovereign or chief of state of a foreign nation, a member of a reigning royal family, and the President, ex-President and President-elect of the United States. It is also fired at noon of the day of the funeral of a President, ex-President, or President-elect. Such gun salutes are also rendered to other military and civilian leaders of this and other nations. The number of guns is based on their protocol rank. These salutes are always in odd numbers, because of a naval tradition that suggested an even number was bad luck.

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The honor guard then places the casket inside the waiting vehicle. Note that there are servicemen inside, standing at attention, waiting to help. The honor guard turns in unison to face each other, lifts the casket slowly, and places it aboard the vehicle.

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An honor guard who had been waiting off to the side of the vehicle slowly and methodically closes the door securely, centers himself facing the rear of the vehicle, and renders a salute, once again, slowly and methodically. At that point, the vehicle departs the field. Another vehicle pulls up, and another honor guard removes the next casket and goes through the same process until all caskets have been removed.

Following these ceremonies, the remains are taken to the JPAC.

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The latter two photos are taken from the video shot from the inside of the JPAC, while the first was from the outside.

It is most interesting to see the POW flag and emblem marking the entry, proof-positive that there are Americans who care and there is a government willing to fund this effort. While many families suffer from knowing that their loved one might not be on top of the list to find, there is some comfort in knowing that theirs "are not forgotten" and can rise to the top of the list quite quickly if appropriate leads come to the fore. That is what happened in the case of Lt. Matocha.

Dr. Tom Holland, the JPAC Lab Director shown in the clip above, presents perhaps the most salient point regarding JPAC:

"The reality is no other country does this ... We're looking for men who disappeared 30, 50, 60 years ago. The aspect of forensics that we do, which is recovering and identifying US war dead, is so fundamentally noble."

JPAC admits to needing a lot of help from the outside, including DNA samples from family members of missing service members. JPAC depends heavily on leads, good leads. JPAC worked on Lt. Matocha's case, for example, for over a decade. The work periodically would be suspended because there were no leads to follow. Dr. Holland commented, however:

"It (Matocha's case) was never forgotten."

His remains were found only when the North Vietnamese soldier who buried him came forward and got word to the US government that he had buried an American serviceman on Dong Ma Mountain. This soldier then took US field team members to the site, the team excavated the site, determined there were remains there, and then began the very disciplined process of extracting, storing, shipping, examining, and identifying the remains. Let us show you where Lt. Matocha's burial site was, so you can imagine the enormity of the challenges in finding our lost service members.

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This is a view of Dong Ma Mountain in Vietnam near the former DMZ. Team Dallas Girl in April 1968 climbed this mountain on a reconnaissance patrol. Lt. Matocha was killed in that action during a very violent fire fight.

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Lt. Matocha's two sisters, and several survivors of Matocha's team climbed the mountain and were taken to the site in which he was buried. The lady standing there is one of his sisters who came to see the site. The red arrow points to the spot where Lt. Matocha was buried, up the side of a heavily foliated mountain. The area behind where she is standing is where the excavators did the majority of their work. They dug below, moved the dirt up to the larger working area where she is standing, and then pressed ahead with their sifting and associated work. We understand that the North Vietnamese soldier chose this site because there was a crater there, making it easier and faster for him to bury the remains.

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This photo shows both of Lt. Matocha's sisters, Loretta Eiben (to the man's left) and Linda Masur (to the man's right), and Nguyen Van Loc, the North Vietnamese soldier who found the lieutenant and buried him. Mr. Van Loc is the one who reported this burial and took US field people to this site, after which an excavation was conducted, and Lt. Matocha was found. The film documents the meeting of the sisters, Lt. Matocha's reconnaissance team mates, and Mr. Van Loc. The meeting is very moving. Here, the sisters asked Mr. Van Loc to help them lay the wreath at the burial site.

Let's now return to the sisters viewing the remains inside the JPAC and show how the JPAC prepared those remains for their flight home to Smithville, Texas.

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Johnie Webb, the JPAC Senior Advisor, asked the ladies if they were ready to go in to see the remains, they said they were, he said "okay," and they all entered this room.

The remains of Lt. Matocha were wrapped in this wool Army blanket. Earlier the sisters had been told that the excavators had found most of his teeth in pretty good shape. His records indicated that he had had a significant amount of dental work done before going to Vietnam. Based on that, the forensic specialists told them that these remains proved conclusively that they belong to Lt. Matocha. Nonetheless, one's heart must collapse at finding the remains could be wrapped in such a blanket.

It turns out that since WWI, this is the way that American soldiers who died in battle were returned to their families. The sisters were permitted to open the blanket and look at the remains, but the cameras understandably were not.

It's worth noting that as you watch the film, listen to the JPAC members talk, and watch them at work, one quickly moves
from talking in terms of "remains" and instead starts talking in terms of the individual, Lt. Matocha, as though they had the entire body a short time after the battle. This is, we think, a most comforting and respectful transition to make.

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Following the viewing, JPAC staff used large safety pins to secure the edges and folds.

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Then, JPAC staff wheeled in a gurney.

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Staff then very carefully picked up the lieutenant's remains.

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Staff places Lt. Matocha's remains carefully on an open and upgraded body bag resting on the gurney.

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Staff then straps the blanket holding Lt. Matocha's remains securely inside the body bag.

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The gurney is rolled away to another room at JPAC in which the lieutenant's casket has already been placed.

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Please note that Lt. Matocha's remains, wrapped in the wool blanket, have already been removed from the body bag and gurney and placed inside a casket. A Navy chief now enters the room carrying the lieutenant's dress uniform.

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The chief places the uniform blouse inside the casket. The chief lays the uniform blouse carefully inside the casket, over the remains. He then places the lieutenant's uniform pants in the casket, placed properly under the blouse.

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The chief carefully places the lieutenant's white dress gloves on what would be the lap area, crossing them as though his hands were folded inside them.

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Two Marine Corps badges are pinned to the casket's interior, above the remains. The badge on the left is the expert rifleman's badge, while the one on the right is the marksman's pistol badge.

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Lt. Matocha's casket is closed and dressed in stages. With his remains, dress uniform, and badges secured inside, the bottom section of the casket is closed and the American flag draped over that section, with the top section remaining open.

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The Navy chief, with the help of an assistant, folds the flag over the lower part of the closed casket so that the field of stars shows on the left, ready to be placed over the fully closed casket so that the field of stars rests above the lieutenant's left shoulder in accordance with tradition.

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The chief now closes the top part of the casket. You can see Lt. Matocha's dress uniform collar.

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With the top closed, the chief unfolds the flag so that it now drapes over the entire casket, the field of stars over Lt. Matocha's left shoulder.

Following this, the casket is prepared for shipment by commercial aircraft to Smithville, Texas. It is placed in a carton made for this job.

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The carton containing Lt. Matocha's casket is clearly marked as "urgent" and containing the human remains of Donald J. Matocha.

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Note that the carton, with the casket inside, rests on a wooden pallet as it is loaded aboard the commercial jet. Ground-crews are trained to handle such human remains with extreme and respectful care.

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Linda Masur and Loretta Eiben stand with a Marine escort officer as the casket is rolled into the aircraft.

As the aircraft made its way to Texas, the first officer came on the loudspeaker to say the following:

"This is first officer Jim Morichal. Today aboard this flight to Austin, we're helping to finally return Marine 2nd Lt. Donald John Matocha to his family, his friends and his hometown, Smithville, Texas. May we ever appreciate and acknowledge the enduring pain and suffering that your family and close friends have experienced over these many, many years. Your example to us is certainly a reflection of the patriotic ideals that make our country so strong and so great. You never forgot and may we never forget what you have given this country."

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An honor guard is waiting on the ramp at Austin Airport, a Marine senior NCO and a member of the Marine veteran's organization. Note that the casket has been removed from its cardboard shipping carton, placed on the wooden pallet, and the American flag folded such that no part of it would touch the ground.

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A Marine field grade officer escorts Lt. Matocha's sisters off the aircraft and to where the honor guard is standing to welcome Lt. Matocha home.

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The Marine veterans carry the casket to a waiting hearse with a color guard standing by, rendering the lieutenant a salute.

Second Lieutenant Donald John Matocha went missing in action on April 5, 1968. He was laid to rest with full military honors at Oakville Cemetery in Smithville, Texas on

September 18, 2004. He was buried during the same week as National POW/MIA recognition day, a day where the Armed Forces officially renews its pledge:

"However long it takes, Whatever it takes, Whatever the cost, America's soldiers will be brought home."

To close this photo gallery, Lt. Matocha was a graduate of Texas A&M University, the Aggies, Class of 1967. In high school he graduated
magna cum laude. At Texas A&M, he was a straight-A student, graduated with a baccalaureate degree in civil engineering, and was a member of the Corps of Cadets. He carried the nickname "Yogi Bear" at A&M because of his country accent and good humor. More than 3,000 people attended his funeral.

Holding the perfectly folded American flag at graveside presented to her by a grateful nation, Loretta Eiben, his sister, said the following:

"This is a significant expression of how people don't forget."