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KPBS Midday Edition Segments

A Fallen Vietnam Veteran Has Returned Home. The Water He Drank Helped Identify His Remains

 June 10, 2019 at 10:41 AM PDT

Speaker 1: 00:00 More than a half century ago. A young Navy reservist died in a plane crash in Vietnam. For years, government scientists couldn't identify his remains in part because he was adopted and they couldn't match his DNA to blood relatives. Finally, they turn to an emerging technique that linked his bones to the drinking water. In the places where he grew up, they'd be denken reports from the American Home Front project Speaker 2: 00:25 at a funeral home in Montebello, California. Sun Mourners pause to ring a ship's bell before signing the guest book. Many in this crowd of waited 52 years to pay their respects to fall in Navy reservist. Rowel Garah. He was just 24 when his plane went down northwest of Denang for his former fiance, Mary Barrow. Summer Lot. The loss is still fresh. I was 22 years old and I had never before experienced someone. The man responsible for bringing revel guera home. His best friend mostly sit silently with his family in a front row. Pew. I visited Reuben Valencia at his home a few days before the service. This is something I made momentos of Garah. We're everywhere. Speaker 3: 01:14 It's a photograph of my best friend role and myself. Back in 1965 when I got married, Raul was my best man. Speaker 2: 01:23 Shortly after that, Valencia was drafted to the Marine Corps and deployed to Vietnam. Garris signed up for the reserves and got a job as a sports editor at a local paper. Then in 1967 he too was shipped off to war. The navy assigned him to serve as a reporter in the field. The friends kept in touch, writing letters back and forth. Speaker 3: 01:43 I would always tell him, don't worry about me. I'm going to get home. I know I'm going to come home. Speaker 2: 01:47 Valencia did come home with a purple heart for injuries he received in combat, but Raul Guara did not return and for 40 years his remains were in the wreckage of the plane in the mountains of Vietnam, inaccessible to American investigators. Speaker 3: 02:02 There was always something inside me that I kept on saying that he was there. He was somewhere there. Speaker 2: 02:09 In 2005 there was a break in the case of farmer had come across the crash site. Other passengers on the plane were quickly identified, but Raul Garris journey wouldn't be so simple. Turned out he'd been adopted from Mexico and no blood relatives were available to provide a positive DNA match. It was a surprise even to his closest friends. Speaker 3: 02:30 Never, never knew that. My friends mother, that I had always known as being his mother, was not his biological mother. Speaker 2: 02:41 The science to finally bring guera home wouldn't catch up for over a decade. John Bird is laboratory director with the defense POW MIA accounting agency. The Pentagon department responsible for recovering, identifying, and reuniting fallen service members with their families. Bird's team used an emerging forensic called stable isotope analysis. Speaker 4: 03:02 In this case, we were looking at oxygen and oxygen isotopes in your body. Come from your drinking water. Speaker 2: 03:08 The water we drink leaves a signature in our bodies. Researchers can match the skeletal record with maps of places where drinking water has been tested. Speaker 4: 03:17 We knew that Ronald Garrett grew up and Ensonata Mexico and then he moved up into southern California. We found, uh, data from studies that had already been done of water supplies from northern Mexico and southern California than we were able to show the ratios we got from the bone matched very favorably Speaker 2: 03:39 early in 2019 after 52 years, Reuben, Valencia, God, word his friends remains, were finally coming home. He choked up at the memory of hearing the news. Hard to talk. Yeah, really, really happy, but hard to talk about it. Girl was laid to rest with full military honors at a cemetery that Valencia can see up on a hillside when he looks at is sliding glass back door in Los Angeles. I'm Libby Dank, man. This story was produced by the American Home Front project, a public media collaboration that reports on American military life and veteran's funding comes from the corporation for public broadcasting. Speaker 5: 04:23 [inaudible].

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Raul Guerra was adopted, so his DNA couldn't be matched to blood relatives. Scientists instead turned to an emerging technique that linked his bones to the drinking water in the places he grew up.
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