‘Thousands of Men Have Come Home Because of Him’

The criticism continued even into the early 1990s, when dissatisfied families at one of the gatherings interrupted a speech by President George H.W. Bush, shouting “no more lies.”

Webb led the first MIA recovery mission into Vietnam in 1985 and steadily managed to secure more personnel and funding for the mission. He enlisted troops with a broader range of skills — from explosives experts to help navigate battlefields or crash sites littered with leftover bombs to mountaineering specialists to repel down treacherous hillsides — to carry out more recoveries, in more places. And he hired additional anthropologists, scientists, historians and genealogists.

The advance of forensic science, combined with more regular access to some of the world’s most remote locations, has increased the pace of successful recoveries in recent years — with nearly 1,300 identifications since 2015 alone.

It also meant that Webb was often away from his wife of more than 50 years, Scher, his son J.D. and daughter, Shalena. 

“He was thousands of miles away, often in the middle of a jungle for weeks at a time or in a foreign country negotiating with foreign dignitaries for access to crash sites,” his daughter, Shalena, told me. “As a child, my friends would ask, ‘Where is your dad?’ and I wouldn’t know.”

In 1994, when Webb retired from active duty as a lieutenant colonel on a Friday, he returned to work the following Monday, this time as a civilian employee. He has remained ever since, filling a series of top posts, and has become a mentor for generations of military officers, enlisted personnel and scientists who have toiled alongside him. And multiple times a year he led gatherings like the one in Denver, where he methodically briefed dozens of families on the status of the searches.

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‘Vietnam War losses are still our number one priority’

The families of the missing signed in for the day-long agenda in the main ballroom, covering the agency’s field and lab work. Place settings had been prepared ahead of time, including literature about the MIA mission and case summaries of attendees’ loved ones.

“We love to have family members visit us in Hawaii,” Webb told one elderly couple attending for the first time.  “We’ll give you a grand tour.”

In another room down the hall, staff swabbed family members for DNA, in the hopes of one day matching the samples to the recovered remains of their missing relatives. Webb also had a full schedule of private meetings with families in rooms across the hall, each devoted to a different conflict.

One family member came to the Doubletree even though her missing loved one had already been returned. A glimpse of Patricia Gaffney in the lobby immediately softened Johnie’s usually stoic demeanor. “Patricia is one of my first loves in this business,” he confided to me after they greeted each other. “I have had a lot of first loves.”

Gaffney was born three months after her father George was reported missing over New Guinea in 1944. When she learned Webb would be in Denver for the weekend, she didn’t want to miss a chance to see the man who was so instrumental in the return of her father’s remains in 1999.

I asked her what role Webb played in her achieving closure. “That word has never satisfied me,” she told me. “This whole thing was about opening an aperture. It was about learning about my father. We missed each other by 102 days.”

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And she said it was Webb who helped her to get to know him. “Johnie has been a very important person in my life, a connection between me and my father,” she said. “He stood with me in the mortuary when I was with my father’s remains for the first time.”

For the family of Capt. Klingner, the search is still on.

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