For Family of Fallen Airman, Closure Comes 45 Years Later

PHOTO: Maj. Gen. Steven Lepper, front right, consoles the family of U.S. Air Force Col. Francis McGouldrick Jr., from left, Marri Petrucci, Melisa Hill, Megan Genheimer, Michele Guess.Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP Photo
Maj. Gen. Steven Lepper, front right, consoles the family of U.S. Air Force Col. Francis McGouldrick Jr., from left, Marri Petrucci, Melisa Hill, Megan Genheimer, Michele Guess, as he hands each one of them an American flag during burial services at Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Va., Dec. 13, 2013.

Exactly 45 years after being declared "missing in action" while serving in the Vietnam War, U.S. Air Force Col. Francis J. McGouldrick, Jr. was laid to rest today in Arlington National Cemetery, where he was buried with full military honors.

"We're on an emotional rollercoaster right now," Mitch Guess, one of Col. McGouldrick's four surviving daughters, told ABC News Thursday. "We have put our lives on hold and now we are finally able to grieve."

Though McGouldrick, a pilot, went missing in 1968, it wasn't until last year that a joint investigation of the United States and the Lao People's Democratic Republic found human remains and aircraft wreckage consistent with that of a B-57E, the same plane McGouldrick flew, near the village of Keng Keuk in Laos. DNA testing confirmed the remains found there were McGouldrick's.

Guess said she was 11 years old when two servicemen came to her home in Columbus, Ohio to somberly say that her father's B-57E bomber had gone down somewhere over Laos, and they had no further information regarding his whereabouts.

According to the Department of Defense POW/Missing Personnel Office, on December 13, 1968 McGouldrick was on an airstrike mission when his plane collided with another aircraft over Savannakhet Province, Laos. McGouldrick was never seen again, and was listed as missing in action until a post-war military review board amended McGouldrick's status to "presumed killed in action" in July 1978.

Ann Mills-Griffiths, Chairman of the Board of the National League of POW/MIA Families, called last year's identification of Col. McGouldrick's remains "a celebration of the ending of uncertainty."

The Department of Defense claims that there are still 1,644 soldiers unaccounted for in Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, and China, but relations between the U.S. and its former Vietnam War adversaries have improved to the point where the recovery of these fallen servicemen is possible. Since 2009, Vietnam has adapted increasingly open policies, offering what Mills-Griffiths describes as an "open invitation to the United States" to excavate former battlegrounds where the remains of American soldiers may be located.

"I am increasingly pleased with the seriousness with which Vietnam has increased cooperation across the board," Mills-Griffiths said.

During annual talks at the Pentagon last month, an eight-member delegation of senior Vietnam officials also advised the United States that Vietnam would be opening four new sites in southern Vietnam to U.S. investigative teams, where specific incidents of U.S. soldier disappearances are reported to have occurred.

Guess, Col. McGouldrick's daughter, hopes that these investigations will provide more families the closure and relief that, in the case of her family, has been a long time coming.

McGouldrick's wife, Jacquelyn McGouldrick, died in 1980 and was buried in the cemetery at Arlington, eligible because of her husband's sacrifice. Thirty-three years later, her husband now rests at her side.

"Our mother passed away due to, I think, the stresses related to our father's disappearance," said Guess. "We know now that they're together in heaven. We always tease that that was the big secret – We know now that they're together, we just didn't realize for how long they'd been together."

CLICK HERE to return to the Investigative Unit homepage.