Bringing Lefty home

I was the youngest brother of Capt. Robert Arthur Brett Jr., otherwise known as "Lefty," the only left-hander of the five of us kids. He graduated from Corvallis High before excelling in the Air Force ROTC program at Oregon State. Our active-duty father, Maj. Robert A. Brett Sr., was there to swear him in to the Air Force and later pinned his wings on him after flight school graduation.

He met the love of his life and future wife, Patrice Costello, around the corner from our house at Adair Air Force Base, and their daughter Camille Marie was born shortly after Lefty finished at the top of his fighter pilot training class at Williams AFB in Arizona in July of 1971.

We couldn't have been more proud when our second lieutenant drew his first assignment: Weapons Officer flying next to Squadron Commander Maj. Bill Coltman on the world's most advanced military aircraft at the time, the F-111.

Powered by two afterburning Pratt & Whitney engines, the swept-wing configuration allowed the aircraft to roar past twice the speed of sound, but also allowed slower maneuvering, such as flying 500 mph 500 feet above the ground at night in a rainstorm with the radar-terrain control flying it. The North Vietnamese called the 111 "whispering death," as you heard only the slipstream of the wings passing above as the ordinance was released — the bomb and the sound of the engines followed shortly thereafter.

I spent most of August of 1972, just before my seventh grade year, at Nellis AFB with my parents and Patrice and Cami. Lefty was finishing 12 months of training in preparation for a combat tour to southeast Asia. He assured me that his F-111 was too fast and flew too low for the enemy to give him any trouble. And he also needed combat hours on his resume to be a Thunderbird pilot when he got back. He got his combat hours — the rest of his dreams vanished in the blink of an eye.

I was surprised to see my parents driving up to Henley Junior High School in Klamath Falls the morning of Sept. 29, 1972. I didn't even associate it with Lefty's first mission out of Thakli Royal AFB in Thailand the night before. He had just arrived overseas. I had not even had time to worry about him. Yet here was my father, who survived active duty in WWII, Korea, and a 1967 tour in Vietnam at Than San Nut, telling me my brother's aircraft was lost.

His first combat mission was an evening strike on a military target in Yen Bai province northeast of Hanoi. His first mission also was his last. Radar contact was lost at 21:45 hours as Ranger-23 crossed back into Laotian airspace. Intense search and rescue missions were called off on Oct. 13. No crash site was ever found, nor any survivors. Maj. Coltman and Lt. Brett were listed as missing in action. Six months later the conflict was ending, and American troops and prisoners of war were coming home. Not ours. The Bretts and Coltmans joined the families of more than 2,500 other servicemen who were missing in a hostile foreign land.

Vietnam was a bloody and unpopular conflict, and some of our leaders in Washington, D.C., were eager to sweep the leftover details under the rug. But the honorable who answer the call to military service do so with a pledge from their government and the citizens they serve. They are never to be forgotten, forsaken or ever left behind. My father never let our government forget that promise.

He joined the National League of Families of Prisoners of War and Missing in Action, eventually becoming a national board member. He worked with Sens. Packwood and Hatfield and our representatives from Oregon — all the way up to meetings in the president's office. The League kept pressing for the honorable accounting that our MIAs and their families deserved.

Twenty years passed before diplomatic ties with our former adversaries began to be restored. Twenty years of a mother agonizing over whether or not her son was alive or dead, was he captured, maybe left behind to toil in a communist prison somewhere? Twenty years of a wife and daughter waiting for word on their husband and father. The precious little baby left behind had by now graduated high school. That's why they call it the ultimate sacrifice. Lefty had to miss all of his daughter's moments along the way.

Renewed hope surfaced in the early 1990s as the former enemies in southeast Asia began working together to investigate combat losses from both sides. Once the opportunity presented itself, our military investigators eagerly went to work. Our first break came in May of 1993 when a Joint Task Force for Full Accounting team found nine photographs in a Hanoi air defense museum with captions relating to an F-111 shot down on Sept. 29, 1972, in Vihn Phu province, which adjoins Yen Bai province to the east, and Houaphan province in Laos to the west. Reference No. 1929 was assigned to the case.

Six more investigative teams worked for leads over the next five years, visiting the previous two areas in North Vietnam and Lao Cai province, but their efforts did not produce any new information. The seventh investigative team crossed over into Houaphan province in Laos and got immediate results. Three Laotian villagers not only knew of an aircraft crash site, on July 31, 1998, they took the team to a steep hillside just more than 4,000 feet above sea level where clear evidence remained of a U.S. military aircraft incident.

Wreckage identified was consistent with an F-111. These three witnesses from Ban Nok Kok, the village five miles away, told the team that the bodies of two pilots were found at the crash site and buried there. Based on these findings, the site was tentatively associated with REFNO 1929.

It took nearly two years to prepare for the full excavation of the site but on the first trip in on March 9 and 10 of 2000, burial sites indicated by witness testimony yielded possible human remains, pieces of flight and survival suits, a U.S. dime dated 1970, and a piece of a watchband. Ten Americans and seven Laotians formed that first team. The U.S. forensics team includes a leader and assistant, a linguist, an analyst, a life support technician, a medic, an EOD technician for potentially explosive ordinance, an anthropologist, mortuary affairs specialists, and a photographer on each of these missions. One month later, evidence gathered at the site on April 9 and 10 confirmed that the crew was aboard at the time of impact, and the crash nonsurvivable.

Three more one-month trips into Laos followed. JFA 00-4L between May 26 and June 21 was hampered by foggy conditions that cost the team five days of work. But the main job of excavating the hillside was under way. JFA 00-5L from July 21 to Aug. 21 brought nine more U.S. specialists and employed 80 local workers to assist. They screened a couple of tons of dirt. One of the screening stations, where excavated earth is sifted, yielded a human tooth, which turned out to be the holy grail of this particular case.

One hundred-fifteen more locals were hired for JFA 01-1L between Sept. 30 and Nov. 1 of 2000. This team completed the difficult site work on the steep 45- to 60-degree sloping terrain at Cong Mountain. Throughout the process, these teams had to helicopter in from 25 miles out each time they visited the site. They did so nearly 50 times to get this one job done. This is not cheap work. But if you ask the families, the results in the end, the answers to those nagging questions, are worth every cent.

Dental analysis at the Central Identification Laboratory at Hickman Air Force Base in Hawaii in 2001 confirmed that the tooth was the maxillary right second molar of Bill Coltman, identified by a radiographic silhouette. The rest of the cranial bone fragments were classified as group remains. At least 91 U.S. team members participated in the investigation and site work to solve case No. 1929 alone, along with several hundred Laotian government officials and laborers, over a span of seven years. A family couldn't ask for much more on behalf of a long-lost serviceman. But we got it. There was one more chapter to be written.

On Aug. 1, 2002, Arlington National Cemetery hosted the Bretts and Coltmans for internment of the co-mingled remains. A service in the chapel, followed by a mile and-a-half procession with the horse-drawn caisson and military band. A B-1 bomber did a low level fly-over, one of our most sophisticated aircraft of today paying tribute to our world-class pilots of the early 1970s who had perished.

We waited a long time, but our country delivered on its promise to these brave men. Nothing brought closure to Lefty's story for me more than when a sharp young officer made the final call at Arlington just before the 21-gun salute and taps. "Col. Coltman and Maj. Brett, stand down. Your mission is complete." Our families were blessed with some long-needed healing by this heroes welcome home.

It's been 39 years, seven months and 29 days now, but I still miss the incredible and brave man who was my brother. We should reflect at opportunities such as Memorial Day on all the sacrifices of our U.S. military personnel throughout all our conflicts, including those lost after the combat stops. Two teams of investigative and recovery specialists from our U.S. military have perished in the past 17 years working to solve these MIA cases in two separate helicopter crashes that claimed the lives of over 20 of our American forensic investigators. They gave their lives to keep that promise of bringing closure and honor to families back home.

And let us resolve to support and take care of our brave troops who serve today, such as the fine men and women of our 186th Guard Unit from Southern Oregon who have seen duty overseas. Not all the wounds of war are physical. Pray for and reach out to those who come home different and disturbed from their sometimes-horrific experiences.

Joe Brett is the Operations and Client Relations Director of RVTV, a local TV and radio sportscaster, co-owner of Table Rock Sports producing high school football and basketball broadcasts and Friday Night high school analyst for KTVL Channel 10 News.

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