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‘Missing in action’ leaves a void

She was only 3 years old, but Janis Curran remembers the day when two uniformed servicemen knocked on her family’s door with news of her father, a pilot in Korea. Her mother read the telegram, took a seat and began to cry.

It was 1951 and Lt. Charles Garrison was reported missing in action after his plane caught fire over enemy territory along the border of North and South Korea. Nearly 60 years later, Curran is still searching for her father’s remains.

“I know it’s a long shot,” she said. “But it can’t be beyond the realm of possibilities. I really need to know what happened to him. He gave his life for his country, and he should be buried in his country.”

On Saturday, the Diamond Bar resident joined more than 200 families from across California and nearby states who share similar stories. They are the children, spouses, siblings, nephews and nieces of service members lost in World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War and the Gulf War. Some never met their loved one but hold out hope that what’s left of the remains -- bones, teeth, dog tags or uniform buttons -- will one day return home.

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The gathering was organized by the Department of Defense to update families on the status of missing troops. More than 88,000 are unaccounted for, their remains hidden in the jungles of the Pacific, off frozen peninsulas in Russia and in battlefields across Europe.

Each year, the remains of some 75 service members are returned to their families with the help of archaeologists, anthropologists and scientists who carefully conduct excavations and find matches using, among other clues, mitochondrial DNA.

Families gathered at a hotel conference room near Los Angeles International Airport were urged to submit DNA samples. Defense officials walked them through the search process, then updated them on their specific cases.

“This is the real-life version of ‘CSI,’ but things don’t happen in 45 minutes,” said Larry Greer of the Defense Prisoner of War/Missing Personnel Office. “It takes years, decades, sometimes a lifetime.”

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Among the challenges: excavating in forbidden regions, such as North Korea; losing sites to builders who develop land; and gaining access to classified archives.

For many, the battle is against time. As they introduced themselves, people spoke of parents and grandparents who died without finding lost loved ones. Many hunched over the microphone, their voices quavering from old age.

“I am Sherry Costa and I am here with my sister representing my brother PFC Raymond Ware,” said one woman from South Los Angeles. “He was in the Army and went missing Feb. 12, 1951. There were 13 siblings and only three of us are left. Like everyone else, we want some closure.”

“We are here for 2nd Lt. Earl Reynolds Stone,” said an attendee from Palos Verdes Estates. “We found his crash site, but we need your help to find his remains. His father suffered two nervous breakdowns after he went missing, and his mother spent the rest of her life looking for her son.”

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“My name is Susie,” another began, but tears overwhelmed her. She pushed away the microphone.

When Curran’s turn came, she represented the father she didn’t get to know until she began her own research 14 years ago. Her mother never remarried and never spoke of him.

Curran tries to attend the update meetings at least once a year. Occasionally she learns new information. And she never walks away feeling alone.

esmeralda.bermudez@ latimes.com

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