Monday, November 27, 2006
For two women, so much comes down to this: a fragment of bone and the lick of a love letter.
Military scientists recently compared the bone recovered in a North Vietnamese jungle where an Air Force pilot's plane went down 40 years ago to saliva on letters he had sent his wife. It was a DNA match, they announced. At last, they said, the remains of Col. Charles J. Scharf had been found.
What they couldn't have known, however, was how differently that announcement would affect two women he left behind.
His widow, Patricia Scharf, 72, of Northern Virginia, has never remarried, has never had children and still considers the Vietnam War officer the love of her life. For her, the announcement was the gentle rub across the shoulder she had waited four decades to feel, one that let her know it was all right to let go.
For Barbara Scharf Lowerison, 72, his sister in California, the announcement was a slap. It meant she was losing -- if she had not already lost -- her fight to convince officials that her brother is alive, a prisoner of war.
The remains of more than 1,300 lost U.S. service members have been identified over the years, with 850 of those from the Vietnam War alone, according to military officials. Usually when remains are identified, relatives emotionally embrace the finding, said Larry Greer of the Department of Defense POW/Missing Personnel Office. And among the few who reject it, most eventually come around "because the science is so overwhelming," he said.
"One of the things it does do for all of us, and we hope for the families, is it helps write the closing chapters of this story that has been painfully open for 40 or 60 years," Greer said.
If that is true, then the story of Charles Scharf, it seems, has two endings.
'What Kept You?'
Patricia Scharf wears the same shade of vibrant red lipstick as in the photos of her youth. After "Chuck" didn't come home with the rest of the POWs, she spent years fantasizing about how he might swoop back into her life.
"If he was to walk in that door right now, I could love him like when I was young," Scharf said. "And I'd say, 'What kept you so long?' "
But the proof that he is gone, really gone, lay across her Falls Church dining room table one recent night, separated into small plastic bags labeled with black marker.
There was the burnt, tattered wallet he was carrying the day his plane was shot down in October 1965. A singed identification card, with his name decipherable, was inside. There were his dog tags. His silver captain's bars. (He was promoted posthumously to colonel.) The torn, worn scapular, or cloth religious pendant, he received on their wedding day. Scharf has an identical one.