HICKAM AIR FORCE BASE, Hawaii – Democratic presidential contender Howard Dean (search) joined family members Wednesday for the emotional return of the remains of three Americans and an Australian missing since the Vietnam War (search). Dean believes one of the Americans was his brother.
Remains tentatively identified as those of Charles M. Dean (search) and his friend, Australian Neil Sharman, civilians traveling in Southeast Asia when they were killed in 1974, were discovered this month buried in a rice field in central Laos. The other two sets of remains are believed to be airmen unearthed in separate sites in northeastern Laos (search).
"While we are saddened that he is not still with us, we are comforted by the fact that he is finally coming home," Dean said.
He spoke with reporters just before four caskets were unloaded from an Air Force C-17 cargo plane and carried to a bus for transit to the military's nearby forensic laboratory. The procedure has been repeated scores of times as remains of missing soldiers and others continue to be recovered from the Vietnam War era.
One casket was wrapped in an Australian flag and the other three in U.S. flags.
Dean, his mother, Andree, and brothers Bill and Jim stood with their hands over their hearts as the remains were repatriated.
Charles Dean, who had worked in the anti-war campaign of Democratic presidential candidate George McGovern, and Sharman were believed to have been imprisoned and killed by communist insurgents.
"This has been a long and emotional journey for my mother, Jim, Bill and me," Dean said. "We greet this news with mixed emotions but are gratified that we have closure for this painful episode in our lives."
Dean said his younger brother "touched the lives of everyone who knew him. I miss him every single day, and I'll never stop being inspired by his passion and idealism."
Sharman's brother, Ian, also attended the somber ceremony, and he and Dean thanked the military for recovering the remains.
They have not been positively identified, but Dean has said he is confident they include his younger brother because of personal items found at the site, including shoes and a bracelet.
As governor of Vermont, Dean had visited a site in Laos last year to push for excavation. A U.S. investigation into the disappearance had begun in 1991, and the first of two joint U.S.-Laotian excavation teams began digging in August.
Charles Dean and Sharman were arrested by the communist Pathet Lao on Sept. 5, 1974, during a trip down the Mekong River in Laos. They apparently were suspected of being spies, although the U.S. and Australian governments said they were merely tourists and strongly protested their detention.
Although Charles Dean was a civilian, the government considers the possibility that any remains recovered may be of missing servicemen, so treats them as such.
The remains of 182 Americans have been recovered in Laos since U.S.-sponsored recovery teams began operating in the country in 1992. Some 387 Americans are still missing in Laos from the Vietnam War era.