DNA brings MIA home for burial
After 33 years of waiting, a local family will finally lay to rest a brother lost when his helicopter disappeared in the jungles of Vietnam.
by Patricia Snyder of the Daily Courier
U.S. Army door gunner Eugene Francis Christiansen will be buried this month at Eagle Point National Cemetery.
While he is no longer one of the 1,914 Americans still unaccounted for in Southeast Asia, his siblings still grieve over the fate of a 19-year-old who enlisted so his drafted brother could come home. Indications that Eugene died quickly in a crash eased family fears he suffered as a prisoner of war, and his identification offers hope to those still waiting for news of loved ones, say some of his siblings, six of whom now live in the Rogue Valley.
Growing up in Barstow, Calif., Eugene was the sixth of 10 children born to Carl and Violet Christiansen.
David Christiansen was the next oldest, by four years. Eugene was the strongest of the children, said David, who now lives in Gold Hill. "He had a body like Atlas," he said, as he struggled with emotion. "He has a spirit that -- it was beautiful."
David was drafted in 1967 and married after boot camp, 17 days before shipping out to Vietnam. Eugene didn't think it was right for a married man to be serving in a combat zone, so at age 18 he enlisted. He followed the same training as his brother so he could replace him as a door gunner and have David shipped home.
"He shouldn't have done that," David protested, as he would have been sent home anyway, not long after Eugene arrived.
Eugene's attitude was different from his peers, noted brother Basil. "Eugene put his life on the line so that David could come home and be with a wife," Basil said. "That's an act of heroism."
Basil attended Santa Barbara College but became bitter about the war and chose a life of love and peace, as a Hare Krishna monk. Helicopter crews in Vietnam flew with danger beneath their rotors. In the summer of 1968, after Eugene had enlisted but before he completed his training, death brushed by David.
"We were shot out of the air and we crashed," he said. A tank crew rescued them, and David suffered a head wound. The soldier who saved him didn't make it. "The guy who saved my life lost his life doing it," David said.
The brothers met up in November 1968, in Da Nang, when their service time briefly overlapped. A couple of weeks into his tour, Eugene was sent to Cam Ram to have a cyst removed from his spine. He spent November, December and part of January recuperating.
He served a few weeks before his Huey helicopter was sent on an emergency supply mission. The helicopter, with seven on board, hit bad weather and the crew radioed it was returning to base in Quang Tri Province. It didn't show, prompting a search. On the seventh day, an aircraft detected a beeper signal but no crash site. The beeping stopped. Eugene was declared missing in action.
The military provided scanty information, recalled David and Andre, the oldest brother.
"They were flying in bad weather," Andre said. "They flew dead into a mountain."
Eugene's parents became active in prisoner-of-war and missing-in-action efforts, lobbying in Washington, D.C., and writing letters. The government declared Eugene dead on Nov. 9, 1978, promoting him posthumously from private first class to sergeant first class.
Karen Christiansen recalled that her mother didn't believe the Army, but was changed by the declaration that her son wouldn't come home alive.
"She always believed and hoped, but in a way she, from that day on, started dying slowly, just her spirit," Karen said. Their mother died in 1980 and their father died about a year later.
A vacation to the Rogue Valley for David and brother Dan led to a general relocation for the family that started in 1973. Now, siblings Andre and Karen live in Grants Pass, Carl lives in Rogue River, Dennis and David live in Gold Hill, and Rick lives in Wimer. Brother Dan lives in Big Bend, Calif., Basil lives in Torrence, Calif., and Kevin lives in Rice Valley in Douglas County.
In 1990, a memorial dedication in Barstow soothed Karen. By then, she still hoped Eugene would return but didn't expect it. "That started some closure," she said.
Eugene's family didn't realize the extent the U.S. government was working toward identification until they were contacted a couple of years ago with a request for a DNA sample. Scientists needed the DNA in an effort to identify a tooth that had been found.
Reports would later reveal the government's intense effort. In 1993, a joint U.S. and Vietnam search team interviewed people who had bone fragments, but apparently were buyers and sellers of remains and were not necessarily trustworthy. They investigated reported crash sites, some of which had no debris or appeared to belong to something other than a Huey helicopter.
In 1995, another joint search team interviewed a Vietnamese who claimed to have visited the crash site and who showed them Eugene's dog tag, which he claimed he took from the site.
Following him to the dense jungle location, they quickly identified it as a crash site for a Huey, based on debris that included cockpit glass and evidence of a fire intense enough to melt metal. They found personal and human remains on the side of the steep mountain. A July 1996 expedition inspected a 714-square-yard area on a 40 to 70 degree slope, using 55 local villagers to help dig and sift for clues. Items discovered included a military insignia, a 1967 penny, a watch with a scuba diver in the center and other watch bands, a metal clip from an ink pen, sections of billfold and dental hardware. An anthropologist inspected everything believed to be human remains, which were then taken to the Central Identification Laboratory in Hawaii, which claims the largest staff of forensic anthropologists in the world.
The lab has identified more than 1,000 Americans listed as missing, including 720 from the Vietnam War. Missing Americans number more than 1,900 from Vietnam as well as 8,000 from Korea and more than 78,000 from World War II.
Shortly before Christmas last year, the family signed papers agreeing Eugene died in the crash. The government asserted that all aboard died in the crash and planned a group burial at Arlington National Cemetery, Karen said, but it was delayed while the military sought approval from other families. The Christiansens decided they didn't want to wait and will bury their brother later this month at Eagle Point National Cemetery.
©Grants Pass Daily Courier,
08 June 2002
Grants Pass, OR
Used with permission