- Associated Press - Saturday, October 25, 2014

FORT WALTON BEACH, Fla. (AP) - Don Gassman holds up his favorite picture of his brother, Fred.

It was taken in 1968, right before he left for the Vietnam War. Fred, 20, stands in front of the family home, with his father and grandfather. Three generations of military heroes - another Gassman soldier.

Another of Don’s favorite photos is of him and Fred taken on the same day.

It was one of the last photos he took with his brother.

“I’ve spent over 30 years trying to find out everything I can about what happened - why he didn’t come home,” Don said.

When Fred decided to join the army at the age of 20, he left behind his wife of 18 months, Kathy, departing from Fort Walton Beach for Southeast Asia as a Green Beret Special Forces Sergeant.

There were a lot of opinions about the war, but Don said his brother was “more curious than anything.”

In 1970, two years into Fred’s service, Kathy got a phone call that her young husband was missing in action. A Western Union telegram followed to the Gassman family.

According to the telegram, Fred and his team were captured during a supply mission. The 22-year-old soldier was set to use his upcoming mid-tour time off to take a belated honeymoon with his wife in Hawaii.

A year later, Oct. 6 1971, Fred was declared killed in action. An army representative explained to the family that the military was getting lists of POWs and that Fred’s name never appeared.

But Fred’s body never returned home, although his last letter to the family did.

“It all started with a telephone call,” Don said. “As you could imagine, mom was beside herself and my two sisters were upset. It didn’t hit me for three months.”

Don’s father, Buck took even longer to show emotion, perhaps because he understood the consequences of war. Buck served 25 years in the military himself in the Air Force and his father served 45 in the Army.

“You know there’s the likelihood, but you’re never prepared for the news,” Don said. “Dad pretty much held it in - it was a long time before he showed emotion.”

The family would receive regular correspondence from JPAC on what was being done to find closure, but every year that went by, the Gassmans had less hope, Don said.

“In 1975 when the war ended and there were the homecomings, it really set in,” he added.

At night, Don would have the same recurring dream.

“It was three or four times a week,” he said. “The telephone would ring and I would answer it and it was him. He says ‘I’m in California being debriefed.’ And then I would wake up.”

The dream prompted Don to enlist at 18 years old in 1971.

“I was young and impetuous,” he said. “I thought, if they can’t find him, I will.”

Since Don was the sole surviving son of his family, he didn’t have to worry about being drafted in the war. In fact, he had to convince recruiting officers to let him join by bringing a signed document from his parents. He never told them what his grand plan was.

In the military, Don worked as a medical technician. While he was never on the battlegrounds he started gathering information right away with his military clearance. Don had even made contact with a man who was working in the communications bunker when the attack went down.

Some of the details, he wish he didn’t know.

“It upset me,” he said. “He didn’t have to go on the mission. He and the team leader volunteered.”

In 1998, Don retired from the Air Force, but continued to work in civil services and is set to retire in less than a year.

Of course, he never stopped looking for clues to find his brother.

“Do I think he’s alive? No. In fact I hope he’s not, because he wouldn’t be the same person,” he said. “But there’s always going to be that itty, bitty spark.”

It was hard for loved ones to move on. Fred’s widow waited 12 years to re-marry and his family held no funeral service. Beside his etched in name on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial is the letters “BNR” - Body Not Returned. A constant reminder of the 44-year mystery.

Don is hoping to have some closure by getting a marked headstone at Barrancas National Cemetery, where his parents are buried.

“It will add a little,” he said.

“We can’t ever forget what these guys have done. To make the ultimate sacrifice for your country - wow. You can’t ever forget them.”

Don said he appreciates the recent outpouring of support to Army Sgt. 1st class and Choctwhatchee-grad Sam Hairston, as well as the inclusion of his brother on the proposed stadium memorial.

But it still doesn’t ease the pain.

“I know how his family feels,” Don said. “But they found his body.”

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