OMAHA, Neb. – News that North Korea is sending home 55 sets of remains is being welcomed by relatives of those missing from the Korean War. But most know they still face long odds at achieving any closure: Thousands of soldiers are still unaccounted for, and identifications could take decades.
Ruth Santella, 84, of St. Paul, Minnesota, doesn't hold much hope of living long enough to discover whether her older brother's bones are among those released by North Korea on Friday. Private 1st Class George D'Amico was killed in action on Sept. 27, 1950, near Taejon, Korea, according to a U.S. Army letter his family received in October 1950.
Her mother died still waiting for news that his remains would be coming home, Santella said Friday.
"My mother went to her coffin with tears over George," she said. "She kept everything he ever sent her — a suitcase full of letters and things. He sent a typewriter for me. I still have it."
Ted Barker, of Dallas, is a co-founder of the Korean War Project, which helps families of missing Korean War veterans submit their genetic information, among other things. The DNA samples are processed at a military DNA lab at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, and compared to remains stored at a military lab in Hawaii. The process is painstakingly long; some remains returned from North Korea in the early 1990s still haven't been identified, Barker said.
"It typically takes six to seven years, if the remains have been recovered," Barker said. "If the family has already given a DNA sample, it could go quicker, but it's still not an overnight process."
Santella said her family is still waiting since submitting DNA samples about 15 years ago. Their only clue arrived in an Army letter two years after his death, which said D'Amico's remains had been buried in a temporary United Nations cemetery in Korea, and would be removed to Japan as soon as it was deemed safe.
"If they just could have gotten my mother his dog tags, that would have put her mind at ease," she said. "As it was, she always held on to hope that he was still alive somehow, wandering around in that country. That, maybe, somebody had taken him in."
Jan Curran, 70, of Gilbert, Arizona, was 3 when her father, naval aviator Lt. Charles Garrison, died in captivity after he was shot down and captured in May 1951.
Curran has spent decades seeking ways to repatriate her father's remains. Years have passed since she persuaded several family members to provide DNA.
In 2013, she was able to fly over the site where her father was taken captive.
"It was a healing experience for me to see that, and know that he had been there," she said. "It gave me some peace."
Now, the thought that her father's remains might be among those sent stateside has stirred up all those emotions again. It's "too much to hope for," she said.
"It would be wonderful," she said, pausing to stifle sobs. "It's amazing, after all these years, how much it can still hurt not to have him."