Separate Truths
When Remains of a Vietnam-Era Pilot Were Identified, One Woman Found Closure, Another Kept Up the Fight

By Theresa Vargas
Washington Post Staff Writer
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.

"Nobody has that. What other pilot has that? That is ours. That is ours," she said.

The items, officials said, were found during several excavations of the crash site.

"Now I'm convinced," Scharf said. "I really am."

They met when she was 16 and married two years later. They had 13 years together before he left for war. She remembers standing among the other Air Force wives on a runway in Florida the day the men flew away. She waved a scarf so Chuck would see her, and he saluted back. A pilot's pregnant wife stood next to her, crying.

"She was saying she knew she wasn't going to see her husband again," Scharf said. "I said: 'Yes we are. We're going to meet them with champagne when they come back.'

"Well," she started, then stopped.

"It was a beautiful life," she said. "It had glory in it. It had strength in it. It had romance in it."

The love letters he sent, about 75 over three months, are addressed to "Mrs. Charles Scharf" outside and to "darling" and "sweetheart" inside. In one, he talks about the family they would start when he returned. They had lost a baby, a girl, at birth.

If she had lived, she would have been almost 50 today, Scharf said. "I would have been a grandma."

After her husband disappeared, Scharf said, she had to learn to take care of herself. She sells jewelry in the Pentagon, and the people there are her family, she said. But when she comes home, she is alone. She talks about her life with Chuck separately from her life without him.

She said that, unlike his sister, she had to let him go.

"I was the wife. It was our life. It was us who lived together. She still has a family. She has everybody there," she said of his sister.

Scharf first held a memorial for her husband in 1978, when the Air Force technically declared him dead. It was a memorial with an empty box. When she buries him Thursday at Arlington National Cemetery, the coffin will carry the bone fragment and a uniform, complete with badges and medals, as if he were wearing it. She also will place the items from the crash site and the love letters in the coffin.

She plans to be buried there with him eventually.

"I now know where I'll be," she said.

'Not My Brother'

Barbara Scharf Lowerison would stop the funeral if she could. And she certainly won't be there for it, she said.

"I don't know what they are burying," she said. "That is not my brother."

Charles Scharf was older by a year-and-a-half, and he was her protector before he was his wife's.

"I'll never forget when I had my first baby. I was 18 years old, and he wanted to take over," she said, laughing. "We had a brother-and-sister rivalry at times, but there was nothing I wouldn't do for him."

About 25 boxes sit in her Hemet, Calif., home filled with letters, witness statements and scientific reports. She thinks he survived the crash, and if he isn't alive, he was until this year. For four decades, she fought to bring him home.

"I think I've been a pain in a neck to everybody. But that's okay. I'm fighting for my brother," she said.

Before he disappeared, Lowerison was a housewife raising five boys and had no involvement in politics.

Since then, she has established sources in Vietnam and Russia whom she has asked for help. She has lobbied presidents from Richard M. Nixon on, giving each a POW bracelet with her brother's name. And for every piece of evidence Pentagon officials have put forth to prove they found Scharf, she has fired back questions:

Why were the items at the excavation site not burned beyond recognition like the bodies?

Why did he have anything on him when most Air Force officers had to store personal effects in a locker before a mission?

Why was the bone fragment not good enough to establish a match with the blood sample she gave in 1992 but now can be matched with the letters?

"No one is telling the truth in this story," she said. "That's the bottom line. No one is telling the truth."

Her proof, she said, includes statements from a former POW who was in her brother's squadron. He told her that he saw photographs of Scharf after the crash. There is also a propaganda film in which a man can be seen for only seconds but walks exactly like her brother, she said.

"I used to say he swiveled when he walked," Lowerison said. "He had a little bit of a sway to him."

About two weeks before he disappeared, she received a letter from him. In it, he told her that he was sending her a ring for her birthday and that he had "some good war stories" to tell her boys when he got home, she said.

She thinks he would appreciate the fight she has launched in his name. "He would have a smile on his face and give me a thumbs-up sign," she said.

If she had never seen the evidence, never heard from others who think he didn't die in the crash, she said, she might have gone along with the military's version, might have been able to bury him long ago. She still might be able to, she said, but not this way.

"If they come and tell me he died six months ago, I'd go along with it," she said. "I would go to that burial."

Lowerison and Patricia Scharf don't speak ill of each other. They don't speak much of each other at all, each dismissing the other's beliefs in short, neutral sentences. "That's her prerogative," Lowerison said of Scharf. "Everyone has different ways of grieving," Scharf said of Lowerison.

So on Thursday, Scharf will stand before her husband's plot at Arlington, content that she has a place now to lay flowers. Lowerison will remain in California, not saying goodbye, not letting go.

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