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Families of longtime missing service members gather for updates

TAMPA — For more than 60 years, Ruth Wollter has wondered what became of her brother.

A Marine serving in the Korean War, Lt. Ralph H. Thomas was shot down over North Korea on Oct. 16, 1951. The military reported him missing in action, Wollter said, and though his remains were never found, he was eventually declared killed in action.

Wollter, 84, of Largo assumed the search for her brother ended there.

She was wrong.

On Saturday, Wollter joined nearly 200 others with a family member missing in action, attending a U.S. Department of Defense meeting in Tampa to receive updates on the search for their loved ones.

"We've made a promise," said Maj. Carie Parker, a spokeswoman for the Defense Prisoner of War/Missing Personnel Office. "We won't leave anyone behind if we can help it."

Formed in 1993, the POW/MIA office is tasked with recovering and identifying the remains of missing American service members from all past conflicts. More than 600 specialists, including forensic anthropologists, policy officers and DNA experts, work year-round on the effort.

In Florida, there are at least 220 unaccounted for service members still missing from the Vietnam War, Korean War and Cold War. Those still missing from World War II are not separated by state but total more than 73,000 in the country, according to the POW/MIA Office.

Wollter, who was contacted by the department nearly 10 years ago, was surprised the search for her brother had continued long after most had forgotten him.

"It's the most amazing thing that the government spends all this time, money and personnel to locate lost Marines," Wollter said. "That the government is that concerned about bringing anyone home."

Thomas joined the Marines during WWII and was disappointed when he wasn't sent into action, Wollter said. His wish was granted in August 1951.

Just eight days before he disappeared, Thomas wrote his sister a letter. In it, he mentioned the tent he was sleeping in and the bullets flying his way.

"He made a comment of 'I hope my luck holds out,' " Wollter said.

• • •

Thomas was 30 at the time and had a wife and two toddlers back home in Massachusetts. Wollter hopes his children will take over the search if the time comes.

It's a search made possible because of DNA.

At the military's Central Identification Laboratory in Hawaii, specialists try to match unidentified remains to DNA samples taken from family members at events like the one held in Tampa.

Not every case is that simple.

"One of the big challenges in older cases is when there are no living direct relatives," said James Canik, the deputy director of the Armed Forces DNA Identification Laboratory. That's when specialists look for alternative ways of obtaining DNA.

"It could be as simple as an envelope sent home to a family member," Canik said. "We're not interested in the letter but the licked seal that can hold DNA."

Scientists have also successfully obtained DNA from articles of clothing, wrist watches, baby teeth and lockets of hair saved from a baby's first haircut, Canik said. The state of the remains can make the task more difficult.

"Especially for remains returned by North Koreans that were commingled together," he said. And the older the remains are, the tougher it becomes to extract DNA.

Other factors used in determining the identity of any remains found in the field include looking at military records of who was known to be in the area at the time as well as military equipment such as weapons, uniforms and dog tags.

"The puzzle pieces are all put together," Parker said.

When remains are identified, families receive the same treatment as those with relatives lost in the current war.

Casualty officers guide families through a repatriation ceremony and full military funeral honors in Arlington National Cemetery or somewhere closer to home, if requested.

After all these years, Wollter is still hopeful she'll see her brother laid to rest.

"It's important," she said. "It still hurts."

Times news researcher Natalie Watson contributed to this report. Shelley Rossetter can be reached at srossetter@tampabay.com or (813) 661-2442.

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