HONOLULU -- Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean, expressing gratitude for the conclusion of a sorrowful personal saga, observed the return yesterday of remains believed to be those of his younger brother, who vanished 29 years ago in Southeast Asia.
Dean's brother Charles perished after being captured by Pathet Lao forces while traveling in Laos in 1974.
In a brief statement to reporters at Hickam Air Force Base, a somber Dean called his brother "a person of deep principle who lived his life the way he believed it ought to be lived." He profusely thanked members of the Pentagon's investigative teams that found and recovered the remains.
"He was an extraordinary person who we're going to miss every day, but we are deeply comforted that this operation has allowed us to repatriate what we believe are his remains and ultimately take them back home," said the former Vermont governor, who took a break from his vigorous campaign schedule to fly to Hawaii for the ceremony.
Flanked by his mother Andree and two brothers, Jim and Bill, Dean stood stoicly, his hand on his heart, as a military honor guard remained at attention while four casket-sized cases were carried in silence from the cargo bay of a C-17 aircraft.
Three of the cases were draped with American flags, and one with an Australian flag. In addition to Charles Dean, the remains inside were believed to be those of two Air Force troops and Dean's friend Neil Sharman, an Australian national. His brother, Ian Sharman, also attended the ceremony.
The cases were carried to a nearby bus, and Dean turned his head to watch as the bus transported them to another part of the base that houses the Central Identification Laboratory of the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command. The command's role is to locate, repatriate, and identify remains of Americans who have gone missing in connection with US wars, with up to a dozen repatriations a year.
Dean has said that his brother's disappearance so gripped him that he sought professional counseling for anxiety years later. He has worn his brother's black leather belt for years in a quiet tribute to their bond. Charles was 24, a University of North Carolina graduate who had worked on the presidential campaign of George McGovern, when he journeyed into Laos. His brother Howard, 16 months older, was pursuing a medical career, and the two corresponded during this period.
With the Vietnam war raging across the border, Dean and Sharman were traveling by boat on the Mekong River on Sept. 5, 1974, when they were captured and imprisoned by Laotian communists, according to the military's investigation. Details of their deaths have not been confirmed but Dean said that the family believes they were executed. Some reports have said they were suspected as spies.
While still governor of Vermont, Dean traveled last year to Laos to see for himself where his brother was lost. His parents visited the country in the 1970s in search of clues.
Military investigators have followed leads in the case since 1994. The recovery team leader, Captain Grover Harms Jr., said yesterday that the only known witness to the grave site, a former local policeman, led them to the area in the Bolikhamxai Province where he had seen the bodies of two white men in a hole in 1974. Now a rice paddy, it had been either a medical camp or a detainment camp at the time, said Harms.
Working with Laotian assistance -- including more than 100 residents of the area -- the searchers unearthed the remains and personal effects after excavating about an acre of land during two trips and 45 days of searching, first in August and September, and again in October.
Because vegetation had overgrown the location, the witness had difficulty pinpointing the exact spot, but finally the searchers came upon a shoe, said Harms.
Lieutenant Colonel Jerry O'Hara said that while it will take the forensic lab about four to eight months to confirm identification, "an encouraging amount of evidence" suggests the remains are those of Dean and Sharman.
The remains included a sock, shoes, and a POW bracelet belonging to his brother, Dean said last week.
After the 10-minute ceremony on the airfield, Dean met with the team members who found the remains and thanked them for their work, which he called "extraordinary." Dean, who as the front-runner has been under fierce attack from his Democratic primary rivals, had no political events or meetings scheduled in Hawaii, and was treating the visit strictly as a personal matter, his campaign said.