20 August 2007

Part One: The Odyssey of Mark Warren Judge, A Navy Cross Winner


TAG: 199501160038
DATE: Monday, January 16, 1995
ILLUSTRATION: PHOTO BY Samuel Hoffman / The Journal Gazette: Mary Jellison visits the grave of her son, Mark Warren Judge, at Concordia Cemetery Gardens. She was notified in August that the remains buried there might not be her son's, but the case remains unresolved.
SOURCE: Mother mourns - and wonders By Tracy Van Moorlehem Staff writer


There is an unknown soldier in Box 15, Stored in a warehouse on a shelf unseen. No grave, no flowers for this fallen Marine. - Pat Plumadore

They speak frequently now on the telephone, Mary Jellison seated before a TV tray spread with papers in her Fort Wayne home, and Pat Plumadore before a similar pile of official documents in Syracuse, N.Y. They sort through the papers together, searching for a nugget of truth that will help them believe what they can't really know. One a mother, the other a sister of boys lost in the Vietnam War, Jellison and Plumadore are bound by the thread of a story that began nearly 30 years ago near Con Thien, where their loved ones were thought to have died. Mark Judge, Jellison's son, and Kenny Plumadore, Pat's brother, were among 31 killed by North Vietnamese soldiers while defending a Marine outpost south of the demilitarized zone. Gunfire in the ambush was so fierce that 15 bodies had to be left behind. When U.S. forces returned three weeks later, only 14 could be found. Working with what remained, military mortuary workers listed Plumadore as Missing In Action/Presumed Dead. A set of remains thought to be those of Judge were returned to his mother and buried in Fort Wayne. But the recovery of an unknown soldier from Vietnam in 1986 and recent revelations by the U.S. military have cast doubt on those identifications. Military officials now believe the unknown soldier - recovered in what was known as Coffin 15 - is Judge, and that the remains in Judge's Fort Wayne grave are of a California soldier named William A. Berry. They believe Plumadore lies in Berry's grave. The families were notified of the possible mix-up in August, but the case remains unresolved. With identification complicated by lost records and X-rays, bureaucracy and the grief of reopened wounds, the process has all but ground to a halt. Neither Jellison nor Pat Plumadore is sure what to believe, but both doubt the military is telling them the entire truth. The two women keep in frequent touch for support and to analyze information gleaned from the government. ``On this paper they said Kenny was examined and declared dead on the scene. ``That's not true,'' Jellison said on a recent January day. ``Many, many times they've said the battle was too fierce and they couldn't stop to examine him. Do you think they would do the exam, then walk away and leave him there dead?'' The two women continued to rehash the document, until a subdued Jellison shook her head. ``Sometimes I just want to say, `Forget it. I'm not going into this grave at all.'''

Returned by Vietnam eight years ago, no name attached. Does anyone know this soldier? A hero? Some mother's son? Was he someone's husband or brother? Lord, what have they done?

Two months ago, Mary Jellison hoped the mystery could be solved, and the new remains buried before the first snowfall. She wonders whether she'll ever have peace of mind that her son has come home for his final rest. In September, Jellison and her daughter gave blood samples so the military could compare their DNA against that of the unknown soldier. When the military's testing came back showing their DNA compared favorably, she requested a private second opinion. In previous discussions, she had been led to believe the military would pay for such an outside opinion, Jellison said. But military officials, including Col. K.W. Hillman, director of the Marine Corps' Human Services Division, said the Marines never said they agreed to pay the estimated $5,000 cost. She was welcome to consult an outside specialist, but would have to pick up the tab herself, he said. Unable to afford the procedure, Jellison said she would not release the remains in her Fort Wayne grave for testing until the military had proved to her the new remains were her son. In November, three military officials who specialize in mortuary and casualty affairs and DNA testing met with Jellison at her home to go over their findings. They told her three specialists hired by the military had gone over the preliminary DNA results and concurred the new remains were her son's. The story, as they could piece it together, was this: Judge had been taken prisoner of war by Vietnamese soldiers, and died at an austere field hospital several days later. According to the Vietnamese government, the remains had been found buried behind a former field hospital in Vinh Linh. While she wanted to know the truth, Jellison couldn't believe what the military was telling her. If they were wrong once, she reasoned, couldn't they be wrong again? Other factors nurtured the seed of doubt. The military had lost her son's dental and chest records. And two outside specialists who examined the incomplete remains told Jellison they could not, by skeletal and dental remains alone, identify the unknown soldier as her son. With so much riding on the DNA results, Jellison renewed her plea for an outside confirmation. ``If that's my son, I want him so bad,'' she said. ``But I just can't bury another boy without knowing, for sure, that it's Mark.''

Does his family now pray over another soldier's grave? Unaware that 27 years ago a mistake may have been made? Do flowers watered by tears from his sisters' eyes grow over the grave where my brother now lies?

That's where the case stands, with the military considering Jellison's demands. In addition to a private DNA test, Jellison wants answers to what she considers discrepancies in military records. For instance, military officials say the new remains compare favorably with her son's remaining records. However, documents written in 1989, 1992 and 1994 differ on whether dental comparisons were favorable. One analysis, dated Sept. 14, 1992, said ``no records of any of the Marines in this (Con Thien) incident matched the dental remains of CILHI 0048-86.'' She also wants assurance that the military won't seek a court order to exhume Judge's Fort Wayne grave. Capt. Mark Ward of the Marines casualty affairs office, who has served as a liaison to the families, said the military has no intention of doing so. While progress may be slow, he said, Jellison's requests are working their way through the system. ``You hate to pick on the government bureaucracy, but this is a complex process, and we have to coordinate between a lot of different agencies,'' Ward said. One recent development is that Gen. James Wold, deputy assistant Secretary of Defense for POW/MIA Affairs, took over the case. That happened as a result of Indiana Sen. Richard Lugar's staff, whom Jellison contacted for help. Wold's office declined to discuss particulars of the case, but spokeswoman Beverly Baker said the general is ``committed to helping Mary resolve this situation.'' Jellison hopes that is true, but is preparing for a fight if it's not. ``I'm on the phone every night for two or three hours,'' she said. ``It's like a part-time job. I go over and over the records to make sure I understand everything that's put before me.'' Jellison takes inspiration from Pat Plumadore, who is seasoned by nearly three decades of searching for her brother, and is trying to foster her own fighting spirit. That's not always easy. ``I'm mad one day and I'm sad the next,'' she said. ``I think I fight better when I'm mad. When I'm sad I just want to give up.'' I will not forget him, my brother Marine. The unknown soldier in Box 15. Tho I don't know him and can't call him by name, I will call him `brother' and pray just the same.

Part two will be posted next Monday, August 27, 2007.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Such a heartache for them. I pray with her for a resolution for all.