NEW YORK — Only two months after he had left for Vietnam in August, 1968, Jose Antonio Graniela was shot during a confrontation with the Viet Cong. His family learned he was missing in action.
Months later, the Brentwood, N.Y., family was told that Jose, 24, had died in the arms of a comrade they knew only as Gary.
His body could not be found, the family was told. Nor could officials find any of his belongings. Even the picture of his fiancee, the one he always carried with him, was gone.
The Granielas wanted to find Gary, and to find out the details of Jose's death. But they were never given Gary's last name.
"This boy disappeared from the face of the Earth, and we get nothing," said Maria Figalora, Jose's sister, in a recent telephone interview. "Three months later, they come up with this story."
For more than 20 years, the Graniela family has lived life through a prism of Jose's death. They agonize over what might have happened to him.
'We Can't Forget'
"They (the U.S. government) want to forget, but we can't forget," Figalora said.
For hundreds of families across America, whose primary clue to the soldier who never came home is the name on a list of U.S. unaccounted for in Southeast Asia, the truth about their fate remains unresolved.
"Unless a case is actually resolved, family members never really get it completely out of their minds," said George Brooks, chairman of the National League of Families of American Prisoners and Missing in Southeast Asia. "It's a relief finally knowing."
Three days after his 21st birthday, Sgt. Joseph A. Matejov of East Meadow, N.Y., was flying his last reconnaissance flight, working electronic equipment over the Laos border on Feb. 5, 1973--eight days after the Paris peace accords were signed and the conflict in Southeast Asia ended.
Mary Matejov and her husband, Stephen, a retired Army lieutenant colonel now deceased, then believed without a doubt the Air Force account that her son Joseph's plane was hit by enemy gunfire. They had a military memorial ceremony in Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, D.C.
For nearly six years, the Matejovs mourned the loss of their son, the third of 10 children, until one morning they heard a television show about a Laotian transmission that indicated that four men in her son's plane were captured and not killed. The Matejovs were later told by a government official that one of the four was believed to be her son.
What followed continues as an agonizing search for the truth. "I know that my son was captured. My son is definitely a prisoner," said Mary Matejov, who is an outspoken activist on the POW-MIA issue. "Tell me the truth about my son, and bring him back, but don't abandon him."
Ever since the war ended, the Vietnamese have periodically offered the United States remains that they claim are of American servicemen. Military officials and veterans' groups said that cooperation between the two countries improved dramatically after former President Ronald Reagan sent Gen. John Vessey to Vietnam in August, 1987. More than 50 Americans in nine different shipments of remains have been identified since then, they said.
Families "are getting more optimistic because we are getting an increased number of remains back," Brooks said. "There is no question there were some men alive who did not come back in spite of our efforts to get information from the Vietnamese and Laotian governments."
But Matejov and other advocates argue that it is the U.S. government that has not done enough to obtain the release of those who they believe are alive and still being held prisoner.
"People were burying bones that were not their loved ones," said Danny DeMauro, a Vietnam combat veteran and president of the Freedom Foundation, a nonprofit organization based in Oakdale, N.Y., that seeks to promote awareness on the POW-MIA cause. "The U.S. is trying to close the book because of political mistakes" on prisoners of war.
'Tooth in a Coffin'
"So many families are receiving one tooth in a coffin, and that doesn't prove that the man is dead," Mary Matejov said. "Some families are getting pieces of bones that in no way can be identified.
"I want people to be aware that there are live men over there," she said.
But Lt. Cmdr. John Kudla, a Pentagon spokesman, said that the government "has been unable to prove that any of the 2,357 persons missing from the Vietnam war are still alive."
The government has received reports of almost 1,200 "sightings" of U.S. servicemen in Southeast Asia, but all but 140 were mistaken identities, people later identified as dead or "suspected fabrications," Kudla said. The government is continuing to pursue the 140 cases but has no proof they actually are U.S. servicemen.
Still, Mary Matejov and other POW-MIA activists understand that families just do not want to open old wounds.
"We haven't heard anything. There is always hope that they are going to find the remains, said Ann Famigliette, niece of MIA William Colwell. Colwell, of Glen Cove, N.Y., was reported missing on Christmas Eve, 1965. "We always live in constant hope. There's no anger (toward the U.S. government). It's just a very hard situation."
Lucy Caliendo, the sister of Paul Andrew Avolese of East Meadow, N.Y., who was a major in the Air Force, said that she has accepted the idea that her brother is probably dead.
"It's been 22 years, so we have to take it as it is," she said. Caliendo said Avolese died when a plane he was flying crashed. "We have wondered, but after all this time, you give up hope."