published Friday, June 10th, 2011

A homecoming, at long last

“No one left behind” is a pledge made by the U.S. military to all who serve in its ranks. Simply put, it is a vow from the Department of Defense that it will not shirk its duty to recover and bring home those who are listed as missing in the nation’s conflicts. It is not a hollow promise. Hundreds of men and women — in uniform and not — toil every day to fulfill what many call the “sacred” mission of bringing missing personnel home. The case of Staff Sgt. Marvin Steinford is proof their work is not in vain.

Steinford, a 22-year-old native of a small town in Iowa, was a crewman on a B-17 “Flying Fortress” on March 24, 1945 when his plane was hit by German anti-aircraft fire. He and his fellow crewmen bailed out over Hungary. While some of his crewmates survived and spent the rest of the war in a prisoner-of-war camp, “Steiney,” as he was known was never seen again.

When he was released from the prison camp at war’s end, the pilot of Steinford’s plane told investigators that he believed the Iowan was killed by either German or Russian rifle fire while descending in his parachute. His remains were not found in extensive sweeps of the area following the war. The U.S. military, however, kept its promise. Steinford’s case was never closed.

It was still open in 2004, when officials in Hungary notified the United States that they had discovered remains in a Soviet military memorial that included Steinford’s military ID tags. U.S. identification teams worked with both Hungarian and Russian officials to identify the U.S. serviceman. It proved to be a difficult, complicated task.

First, United States, Hungarian and Russian officials had to agree on protocols for exhumation. Once that was done, the identification process, using DNA testing and other protocols, was started. That took more time than expected.

Forensic teams discovered that what were believed to be Steinford’s remains were mixed with those of a Russian serviceman. Painstaking work eventually led to separation of the remains and to positive identification of Steinford — about seven years after remains with ID tags were discovered. The U.S. military mission was fulfilled. Steinford, at last, was coming home.

His remains will be buried in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, on June 21. His daughter, four grandchildren and 11 great-grandchildren will be in attendance. Stenford’s wife will not. She died last fall. Steinford’s interment will close his case, but the military’s “no one left behind” promise remains operative.

About 83,000 Americans who served in the military — more than 70,000 from World War II alone — still are listed as missing in action. The search for them continues. It should. Finding and bringing missing personnel home is work that should end only when there is a full accounting of all the nation’s MIAs.

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