A federal judge on Thursday awarded $632,000 to the family of a missing Vietnam War officer shot down in Laos, ruling that the Air Force caused them severe emotional distress when it misidentified bone fragments as his remains in 1985.
Lt. Col. Thomas Hart III was shot down in December, 1972, while navigating a gunship mission. After a U.S.-Laotian team searched the site in 1985, the Air Force told his wife, Anne Hart, that it had recovered her husband’s remains.
She refused to accept the identification, which was based on small bone fragments, and battled the Air Force to win an independent evaluation. The investigation found that the fragments were insufficient to prove the identities of most of the crash victims, and Hart successfully sued the government.
“She is pleased this case is going to serve as a precedent for the families of other Southeast Asia war veterans,” her attorney, Fran Frick, said. “It will afford them some protection against the same thing happening to them.”
“Money has never been the issue,” Hart said. “There is no amount of money that can undo the damage that has been done to my family. But we might keep the government from doing this again to another family.”
Senior U.S. District Judge Winston Arnow had ruled in January that Hart suffered from severe emotional distress, but he had delayed the issue of damages until this month’s trial.
On Thursday, he awarded Hart, her daughter Gillian, both of Pensacola, and Col. Hart’s mother, Vera Lee Hart, of Live Oak, a total of $632,000, saying their distress “was attributed to government misconduct,” Frick said. Gillian Hart and Vera Lee Hart will receive $125,000 each.
In the ruling, Arnow said Hart suffered $500,000 in emotional distress, but he reduced the award by 25% on the grounds that not all her problems were linked to the military.
Two Survive Downing
Col. Hart was one of 16 people aboard the AC-130 gunship shot down over Laos. Two crewmen survived and were rescued, but Hart was listed as missing in action. Six years later, the government changed his status to presumed dead. It was not until 1985 that relations between the two countries warmed enough to allow a search of the site.
Fifty thousand bone fragments and personal objects were brought to the military lab in Hawaii, and some were identified by the Air Force as Hart’s.
Frick said the government may have hurried the identifications to reinforce the joint effort between Laos and the United States, the first cooperation between the two countries after the war.
Lt. Col. Keith Schneider, a Pentagon spokesman, said in Washington that the Defense Department had not been informed of the judge’s ruling and would not have any immediate comment.