Officially, Maj. Bobby Jones is still missing in action, but his family's 36-year search for answers may finally be over.
Jones, the only Macon serviceman still missing from the Vietnam War, has been listed as MIA since November 1972, when his jet disappeared from radar in South Vietnam. But in June, a forensic anthropologist found a military identification card near a crash site, and that marker now has been linked to Jones.
"At least we have the satisfaction of knowing that he did not survive, he was not taken prisoner, he was not tortured," Jones' sister, Jo Anne Shirley, said Tuesday. "Technically, he's still on the list of missing. ... As a family, this is a huge step toward the closure we've been searching for."Click here to find out more!
Jones was an Air Force flight surgeon whose F-4 fighter plane was shot down while he and the pilot were on a noncombat mission to deliver medical supplies from Thailand to Vietnam.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Telegraph
The site near Da Nang was excavated in 1997, and items such as harness straps, buckles and ejection seat parts were examined, Shirley said. No link to Jones was found at that time, but it was determined that no one survived the crash.
The team that returned to the area two months ago recovered a "blood chit," a card carried on flight vests that included a number linking airmen to a military database. Shirley and her mother, Christine Jones, both of whom now live in Dalton, got news of the match July 22.
"Now we know two things - that's my brother's F-4, and the two people on board did not survive," Shirley said.
The new information could lead to more digging at the site, said Capt. Mary Olsen, a public affairs officer for the Department of Defense Prisoner of War/Missing Personnel office.
"It's a great sign. It helps us a lot with narrowing down and pinpointing," Olsen said. "Now they're considering this site for excavation."
A Macon native, Jones is also the only U.S. military physician still missing. The Interstate 75/Interstate 16 interchange in Macon is named in his honor.
Shirley, who's become a leading advocate for families of missing soldiers, said that with her brother's fate now known, recovering his remains and having some sort of burial would be "icing on the cake." She was 25 when her brother went missing, and she had long given up hope that he was alive.
"Early on, when you first get the news (that someone's missing), you're optimistic that they're going to find him, that they're going to bring him home," she said. "As weeks go by, you realize that's not going to happen. As a family we sat down and said, 'What are our options?' "
She and her family decided to take up the cause of all missing soldiers.
Shirley has served for the past 13 years as chairwoman of the National League of Families of American Prisoners and Missing in Southeast Asia. The organization is dedicated to the 1,757 Americans still missing and unaccounted for from the Vietnam War.
"My mother is 92," said Shirley. "She's never missed a league meeting since she found out about the organization."
Shirley has made four trips to Southeast Asia on behalf of the League of Families. She also co-founded the Georgia Committee for POW/MIAs Inc.
She said she'll keep working toward finding more missing soldiers - and toward holding the government more accountable.
"We have an obligation, as a country, not to leave those guys behind," she said. "We've got a lot to do, and my family will support the families of those who still need an answer."