WATERLOO — The daughter of a Cedar Falls pilot who went missing during the Vietnam War returned to her father’s home community Friday amid renewed hopes his remains, and those of other American MIAs in Laos, might be found.
“We just have to get all the government behind it. I think it’s going to be in my lifetime. I’m sure of it,” said Nancy Whitford Eger.
Eger, the daughter of U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Lawrence William Whitford Jr., spoke at a POW-MIA recognition observance at the Grout Museum District’s Sullivan Brothers Iowa Veterans Museum on Friday.
Eger and her husband, Bill, who live near Atlanta, brought items from her father’s service to be donated to the museum, including a flight helmet, boots and medals.
Eger’s father was shot down along the Ho Chi Minh Trail over Laos on a reconnaissance mission in November 1969.
In recent years, Eger, the only surviving member of her immediate family, has redoubled efforts to lobby for her father’s remains to be located and recovered. Her father’s possible crash and burial sites have been identified, and she wrote a letter to President Obama prior to his Laos trip this month in hopes the POW-MIA issue might be raised.
Iowa U.S. Sen. Charles Grassley, U.S. Rep. Sam Johnson of Texas, U.S. Sen. John McCain of Arizona and several other Republican and Democratic House and Senate lawmakers sent a similar letter.
In response, Eger and the legislators received a letter from Brian McKeon, acting U.S. undersecretary of defense. He noted recent meetings in Hawaii between the U.S. Defense POW-MIA Accounting agency and Lao representatives before Obama’s visit to Laos were productive.
“The conversations were very cordial and indicated an increased level of cooperation that we hope will result in more efficient and effective operations in 2017 and beyond in Laos,” McKeon wrote. While many MIA remains have been recovered from Vietnam, Laos has been more difficult, due in part to a difference in government cooperation.
McKeon noted Lao representatives said their government approves allowing the DPAA to increase staffing in the field in Laos and to allow, “on a case-by-case basis,” DPAA excavation teams to set up camps at remains recovery sites. Previously the Lao government limited teams’ time at recovery sites.
“We consider this critical to the DPAA’s efforts to advance the accounting mission in Laos,” McKeon said, adding Obama’s visit “will serve to strengthen the U.S.-Lao bilateral relationship, including our accounting mission in Laos.”
Two other local military pilots went missing over Laos during Vietnam — U.S. Air Force Col. Richard Ayers of Waterloo and U.S. Navy Capt. Paul Milius of Waverly.
On her visit to Waterloo-Cedar Falls — her first in 30 years to her dad’s home area — Eger said, “This is a long time coming. I think my dad is upstairs saying, ‘You go girl.’”