May 21, 2007

US Air Force repatriates remains from Libya

/21/2007 - WASHINGTON (AFPN) -- Air Force officials recently returned from Libya with the remains of 72 deceased Americans, believed to be family members of Airmen once stationed at Wheelus Air Base located outside of Tripoli, the nation's capital.

Mark Blair, the chief of Air Force Mortuary Affairs, was one of the experts called to fly to Tripoli and head the project.

"The Air Force was notified by the State Department and we were told that there were Americans still buried there," Mr. Blair said. "Wheelus was active from about 1958 to 1972 as a B-52 (Stratofortress) base and Airmen were permitted to have their families with them."

The two-week unearthing process was an arduous one as Mr. Blair and his three-person team worked with local contractors to recover the 35- to 50-year-old remains. Conflicting schedules and religious holy days limited the amount of time they could all work at the site. Overall, 70 infants and two adults were repatriated from the cemetery.

"The government of Libya was very helpful in facilitating this humanitarian effort and we appreciate their cooperation, which allowed us to repatriate these remains back to the United States," Air Force officials said.

The dead were buried at a cemetery run by the Italian military, which had offered Americans stationed at Wheelus a free plot and marker. At the time, there was no entitlement for American servicemembers to have deceased family flown home, so many Airmen took the Italians up on the offer, Mr. Blair said.

"The cemetery was being renovated and downsized, so had we not recovered the remains, we would have lost all accounting for them," he said. "The records said there were about 50 Americans buried there, but then we found a separate Catholic section where we found 16 more infants."

In addition to the remains, Mr. Blair and his team took several photographs and rubbings of the markers. Their goal now is to locate family members to see if they would like remains returned to them for burial at a family plot.

"This was the right thing for the Air Force to do," Mr. Blair said. "We certainly couldn't have done it without the help of the State Department, The embassy staff or the outstanding support of Air Force leaders. This is a perfect example of the Air Force stepping up to take care of its own."

If anyone thinks they may have, or know someone who has, family who might have been buried at Wheelus AB, call the Air Force Mortuary Office at 800-531-5803.

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