COLUMBUS, Neb. | The plain white index card taped inside the front window of Louise Stark's home needs updating.

Sometime three years ago, she wrote a simple equation on the card, subtracting the year 1966 from 2009 to show it had been 43 years since her brother Willie Stark went missing during fighting in the Vietnam War.

On Dec. 2, it will be 46 years since he was last seen, just across the Vietnamese border in Laos. He's still listed as Missing in Action, but is presumed to be dead.

"It's been well over 10 years since I've heard anything," Louise Stark said, of American searches for remains in the area in which her brother was last seen.

She is among the many still seeking closure this Memorial Day. More than 83,000 American service members from World War II to the present remain unaccounted for.

For Louise Stark and many others, there still is no grave to decorate with flowers on this weekend. Or if there is, nothing lies beneath the marker.

Families are left to wonder. Could their family member still be alive? If not, was he given a proper burial? Will remains ever be found and returned home?

"There's very few days that we don't think about him," said Ron Rex, of Odebolt, Iowa. His first cousin Bob Rex, an Air Force forward air controller, was shot down flying his O-2A reconnaissance plane over the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos on May 9, 1969.

Bob Rex was confirmed killed in action two days later, but a strong enemy presence near the crash site prevented the recovery of his body. Searches at the site since the war ended have failed to find his remains.

A marker in his memory lies among other Rex family gravestones in the Odebolt cemetery. Ron Rex frequently speaks with Bob's brother, Don, who lives in Denver. They still hope  the remains will be found someday.

"I can't express my feelings. It would please us very much to have some remains returned," Ron Rex said.

'I think he died on the march'

While the Rex family remains hopeful, Don Hansen figures his brother will forever be in North Korea. Dan Hansen, an Army infantryman, was captured during the Korean War on July 11, 1950, and was later forced to march to a prison camp in North Korea. He is believed to have died Dec. 10, 1950. His remains have not been recovered.

"We used to kid around, he could be in North Korea with a wife and kids," Don Hansen said. "I don't think he made it to prison camp. I think he died on the march."

After all this time, Don Hansen isn't bothered that his brother's remains haven't been found. He's made peace with the fact that he died in Korea and is unlikely to be returned to a spot under a memorial in the cemetery in his native Correctionville, Iowa.

"I figure no suffering now," Don Hansen said.

Louise Stark would consider it a miracle if Willie Stark were still living, though the last Americans to see him reported that he was still alive when helicopter attempts to rescue him and his special forces comrade Russell Bott failed.

"I did know that my brother was severely wounded," Louise Stark said. "They yelled for Bott to get on, but he wouldn't leave Willie. My brother would have done the same thing for Bott. The next day they went back, and nobody was there."

In searches years later, Louise said, a credit card bearing Willie's name was found near the site where he was last seen. It's the only trace of him.

Keeping the faith after all the years

Louise Stark finds comfort looking at a photo of 10-year-old Willie, dressed in a clean white shirt and overalls when the family lived in the Martinsburg, Neb., area.

As Don Hansen sits in his recliner, just above him hangs a small framed photo of his brother. He said his family hadn't even known Dan Hansen had been sent to Korea until his parents received the telegram notifying them that he was missing.

"Like most of them, I didn't even know where Korea was," said Don Hansen, who spent nearly a year at war in Korea himself after being drafted into the Army.

His parents never said much about the 11th of their 14 children missing in a foreign land, he said. The family always figured that if remains were found, they'd be sent home.

They're still waiting.

Ron and Don Rex are, too. But because Bob Rex's crash site has been searched, Ron Rex said he believes it unlikely that there will be more efforts to locate his remains. Ron and Bob's brother take comfort in knowing for sure what happened to Bob.

"We're both at peace with the fact that we know he was killed and it was confirmed," Ron Rex said. "That MIA, you'd go through the rest of your life not knowing."

Not knowing, but still hoping. As the years add up.


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