“Thousands of men have gone home because of him”
The criticism continued even into the early 1990s, when dissatisfied families at one of the rallies interrupted a speech by President George H. W. Bush, shouting “no more lies”.
Webb led the first MIA recovery mission in Vietnam in 1985 and was steadily successful in securing more personnel and funding for the mission. He enlisted troops with a wider range of skills – from explosives experts to help navigate battlefields or crash sites littered with bomb remnants to mountaineering specialists to fend off dangerous slopes – to perform more recoveries, in more places. And he hired other anthropologists, scientists, historians and genealogists.
Advances in forensics, combined with more regular access to some of the world’s most remote locations, have accelerated the pace of successful recoveries in recent years – with nearly 1,300 identifications since 2015 alone.
It also meant Webb was often away from his wife of over 50 years, Scher, son JD and daughter, Shalena.
“He was thousands of miles away, often in the middle of a jungle for weeks or in a foreign country negotiating with foreign dignitaries for access to crash sites,” his daughter, Shalena, told me. “When I was a child, my friends asked me: ‘Where is your father?’ 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 since, holding a series of high-level positions and becoming a mentor to generations of military officers, enlisted personnel and scientists who worked alongside him. And several times a year, he led rallies like the one in Denver, where he methodically updated dozens of families on the status of the search.
“The losses of the Vietnam War are always our number one priority”
The families of the missing signed up for the day-long agenda in the main ballroom, covering the agency’s field and lab work. The locations had been prepared in advance, including documentation of the MIA mission and case summaries from participants’ relatives.
“We love having family members visit us in Hawaii,” Webb told an elderly couple attending for the first time. “We’re going to give you a big ride.”
In another room down the hall, staff took DNA samples from family members, hoping to one day match 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.
A family member came to the Doubletree even though their missing loved one had already been removed. A glimpse of Patricia Gaffney in the lobby immediately softens Johnie’s usually stoic demeanor. “Patricia is one of my first loves in this business,” he told me after they greeted each other. “I 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 had contributed so much to the return. of his father’s remains in 1999.
I asked him what role Webb played in shutting him down. “That word never satisfied me,” she told me. “It was all about opening an opening. It was to find out more about my father. We missed each other by 102 days.
And she said it was Webb who helped her get to know him. “Johnie was a very important person in my life, a link between me and my father,” she said. “He stood with me in the morgue when I was with my father’s remains for the first time.”
For Captain Klingner’s family, the search continues.