Officials say no to plea to travel to gravesite
By Matthew Whittle
Published in News on July 16, 2007 1:45 PM
Early last week, Cary Turner got the news he had been waiting for, but it wasn't what he wanted to hear.
A month after learning that the U.S. Army was planning a trip to the Cambodian island his cousin, Marine Lance Cpl. Joseph Hargrove, was left behind on in 1975, Turner found out that his request to accompany the recovery team had been denied.
"I'm mighty disappointed," Turner said. "I expected it, but there was that faint hope that the government might show compassion to Aunt Charlotte and the Hargrove family.
"Obviously I was wrong."
The Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command (JPAC) is planning the recovery mission to Koh Tang island in early 2008 to try to recover Hargrove's remains. The gravesite they will be excavating was identified in 2001.
Hargrove, along with two other men, was left behind during an assault to rescue the sailors of the U.S. merchant ship, the S.S. Mayaguez, after they were captured by the Khmer Rouge.
When the force retreated off the island, Hargrove, Marine Pfc. Gary L. Hall and Marine Pfc. Danny G. Marshall, were left behind because of a miscommunication on the battlefield as they protected the right flank. No rescue mission was ever launched, and 14 months later, the three men were declared dead.
The graves of Hall and Marshall were identified in 1999, but few remains were found. Hargrove's site is the only one left.
Turner, a Duplin County commissioner, made his request to join the JPAC team through U.S. Rep. Walter Jones, R-North Carolina. Hargrove also is a Duplin County native.
"While we admire Mr. Turner's devotion to his family and his desire to be present during fieldwork associated with Cpl. Hargrove, participation in a (Department of Defense)-sponsored field activity, to include investigation and excavations, is limited to DoD personnel," wrote Charles Ray, deputy assistant secretary of defense, POW/Missing Personnel Affairs, in a letter to Jones.
In that letter, Ray explained that such missions often involve extreme heat, dangerous terrain, unsanitary conditions, adverse weather and possibly unexploded ordinance.
"Visitors at on-going excavations or investigations may place themselves at physical risk and/or jeopardize operations, the scientific integrity of the work and the resolution of the case," he wrote. "JPAC field teams conducting operations are not structured to support visitors administratively, medically or logistically. Additionally, non-official personnel cannot be allowed within the work spaces or excavation area."
However, the letter continued, JPAC commanders can authorize individuals, such as veterans or eyewitnesses, to accompany the teams if they can "offer a specific and necessary contribution to the field team and the mission."
Unfortunately, Ray also noted that Turner does not meet those criteria.
"I can certainly understand the family's viewpoint and there have been family members who have visited ongoing excavation sites, but those were simply observing for a short period of time and then leaving," said Larry Greer, spokesman for the Office of POW/Missing Personnel. "A visit to Koh Tang is different.
"There are no tour groups that through Koh Tang. The team itself would have to support and assist a civilian visitor, and the liabilities for that sort of thing are real."
Besides, he added, the Marine Corps has an office dedicated to providing the families up-to-date information in such cases.
But, Greer stressed, "it is our every intention to go back in early 2008, unless something interferes, and I hope it doesn't. This has been a very difficult and complicated effort, but we're still at it."
In Jones' letter to Turner, though, the congressman offered to help him pursue the matter further.
"I can understand the reasons for the strict regulations, so I'm not optimistic. But if Cary wants me to pursue it, I will," Jones said. "The important thing, though, is that when I called, they told me they already had plans to go back to Cambodia in January or February and to me, that's very, very encouraging."
Turner said he plans on taking advantage of Jones' offer.
"We're working against a time factor here. Aunt Charlotte (Joseph's mother) -- her health is not that good. She's given two sons for this country and this is the one thing that we're asking in return," Turner said. "Don't you think the government could allow this one thing for the Hargrove family so they can have peace of mind? I don't think it's too much to ask.
"I'm not discouraged that easily. I'll just attack another direction. It's not going to go away. After 32 years, I'm joining the fight, and I've got a whole lot of energy.
"Medically, I'm fit. I have voluntarily said I'd sign a waiver releasing the government from any liability. I don't ask them to pamper me in any way. I don't ask for special treatment. I can rough whatever conditions. I'm just going there for the family and for Joseph."
He fears, though, that there might be more to his being denied permission to help excavate Hargrove's grave than just concerns about his safety.
"I think they're worried about the attention it might attract if they do find anything," he said. "After all these years, you suddenly find the remains of a soldier from a mission that went bad, a mistake that was made ... do you think the government wants that kind of publicity nationwide?
"For every person, I can show you that knows about this, I can probably show you a thousand who don't, and it's those thousands they're probably worried about.
"But if the government will allow this, this issue can be over. As long as I'm there, as a witness for the family, regardless of the outcome, it's over. This is the last possible site. There's closure either way."
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