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Saga of missing brother shows lost confidence



Published: Mon, June 18, 2001 @ 12:00 a.m.



Jerry Degnan was buried under the wrong name in Boston for 15 years.

CANFIELD-- Ronald Degnan's trust for his government eroded over the last 30 years as he and his family searched for his missing brother, Jerry.

"I've been told too many stories, too many lies, too much evasion," the Canfield man says.

Jerry Degnan, a civilian working for a military contractor, was killed in a helicopter crash in South Vietnam in August 1967. His body was identified in late 1999.

In an attempt to find his brother, Degnan wrote and called the Army, the State Department, his congressmen and other government officials.

"They would all say they have no information or cannot find a file on the case," he said.

What happened: Then in April, Ronald got a report from the Army's Central Identification Laboratory in Hawaii saying Jerry's body had been positively identified.

He had spent 15 years buried under the wrong name in Boston.

"I just didn't believe some of the stuff at first," Ronald said. "It was like someone was making up a bad story."

The report contained pictures of Jerry's remains.

Ronald discussed the circumstances surrounding his brother's disappearance for a Vindicator article May 4, but he was not willing to talk about the Army report until after Jerry's funeral in May.

His brother's job in Vietnam was to train Army helicopter pilots to use a new navigation system.

The report states that Jerry was one of six passengers aboard a chopper that collided with a military plane on Aug. 9, 1967, east of Saigon. No one on the helicopter survived.

What caused trouble: The problem began because Jerry's name was not listed on the helicopter's manifest.

Rescue crews recovered five bodies from the helicopter soon after the crash. Four were identified from the manifest. Army officials were not able to identify the fifth.

However, the race, build, stature and hair color of the fifth body matched those of the fifth name on the passenger list. As a result, Army officials assumed the body was that of the fifth passenger and the body was sent to that person's hometown, Boston, for burial.

Three months later, rescue crews found a sixth body at the crash site. The body had dogtags and two identification cards indentifying it as the fifth passenger on the helicopter, but since the fifth passenger had already been identified, Army officials did not investigate further.

The sixth body was eventually taken to the Army Central Identification Laboratory in Hawaii.

Jerry was officially declared dead in 1973.

Fifteen years after the crash, in 1982, government investigators re-examined the body as part of an effort to place an unidentified soldier from Vietnam in the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Washington.

Lab results: The investigators positively identified the body as the Boston man's. The body that had been buried in Boston all that time was exhumed and sent to the lab in Hawaii.

It remained at the lab for another 16 years. Then, in February 1999, Army Investigator Robert Maves took three bone fragments and compared them to DNA taken from the Degnan family.

Jerry Degnan had been found.

Ronald said that he was not expecting the Army report when it arrived in the mail. His wife, Diane, said she felt that an Army official should have delivered the report personally to answer any questions about Jerry's case.

Larry Greer, a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Defense's Prisoner of War Missing Personnel office, said that identification reports are typically delivered by Army counselors.

Greer said Army officials were disturbed that the Degnan report was sent to Ronald by mail.

"Someone dropped the ball," he said.

hill@vindy.com




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