Twenty-six years after he disappeared without a trace in Vietnam and 17 years after the Army declared him dead, Master Sgt. Mateo Sabog has turned up alive. And to top it off, the 73-year-old man is still in the Army.
Until several days ago, every sign pointed to Sabog's being a casualty of the Vietnam War. His name is on the Vietnam Veteran's Memorial as having died in the war, and just last April the Vietnamese returned human remains they said were his.
But several days ago, he proved these reports of his death to have been premature.
Sabog showed up at a Social Security Administration office in Georgia one day in late February to apply for benefits. It's not yet clear how he managed to stay institutionally invisible all those years or why he chose to reappear now.
Unable to produce any personal papers to prove his identity, Sabog referred the Social Security office to his brother, Kenneth, in Hawaii. The brother, who had tried unsuccessfully to find Sabog years earlier, called Army headquarters in Washington on Feb. 26, saying the missing soldier had been spotted in Rossville, Ga.
A fingerprint examination showed Sabog was, indeed, the missing Vietnam vet.
"This is all a shock to us," said his sister-in-law, Kay Sabog, Friday in Hawaii. "We had no knowledge of his whereabouts or if he were alive. We assumed he was dead and gone."
She said Kenneth Sabog and two other brothers will leave for Georgia on Monday for a reunion with their long-missing brother.
Sabog was undergoing a full medical examination Thursday at the Eisenhower Army Medical Center at Ft. Gordon, near Augusta, Ga. The Army said it was trying to reconstruct events and records, but so far had no explanation for the bizarre case.
"We are treating Master Sgt. Sabog like a long-lost soldier returned," said Col. Don Maple, an Army spokesman. He's not only returned, but back in the fold; though he is in frail health, the Army is putting him back on active duty.
Because he was never properly discharged, Army rules require that the paperwork be done to put him on the active-duty rolls before he can be discharged, Maple said.
"Being in the Army is more than a state of mind," Maple said.
Sabog, a native of the Philippines, entered the Army in Hawaii on Dec. 15, 1945.
He originally was declared a deserter after his disappearance in Saigon in February 1970, but after an unsuccessful FBI search, the Army in September 1979 declared him legally dead, effective March 26, 1970.
Maple said Sabog apparently was living alone in Rossville for many years.
Sabog's reappearance was first reported by the Washington Times last Thursday. The newspaper said Sabog, on his return flight to the United States from Vietnam in 1970, got off the plane in California although he was supposed to continue to a new assignment at Ft. Bragg, N.C.
The Washington Times said Sabog remained on the West Coast for a number of years before moving to Georgia. Maple said the Army did not know if he was in California.
Asked about the case, the Army released a chronology indicating that Sabog was last seen on Feb. 25, 1970, when he was shipping out from the headquarters of the 507th Transportation Group in Saigon.
He was not missed by the authorities at Ft. Bragg because of an administrative glitch: The post was never informed that Sabog had orders to report there, Maple said.
It was not until 1973, when Sabog's family in Hawaii asked the Army to help find him, that the Army realized he was missing, Maple said. In June 1974, the Army declared him a deserter, but that status was changed to presumed dead in 1979.
In July 1993, the Pentagon's office in charge of POW and MIA affairs told the Army that Sabog's name would be added to the Vietnam Veteran's Memorial as having died in the war.
Last April, the POW-MIA office informed Sabog's brother that Vietnam had recovered and turned over his remains.
The remains included teeth. Dental analysis was inconclusive, so the Army decided to conduct a DNA analysis to attempt to identify the remains. Before that could be done, however, Sabog turned up in northwestern Georgia.