DNA identification of Madison POW brings closure to vigil of local woman

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Rita Sullivan said that she was sitting in her living room last Tuesday night when her husband, Lowell Wayne Sullivan, came into the room with some news. The following conversation went something like this:

“You’ll never believe this, but they’ve identified the remains of a soldier from Madison.”

“Was his name Donald Hoskins?”

“How’d you know that?” was the astonished response.

Lowell Wayne Sullivan thought his wife had already read the daily newspaper, but quietly she stood and walked to her bedroom. Opening her jewelry box, she took out a clear plastic bag that contained a scrap of paper and a brass bracelet.

For 34 years, Rita Sullivan had kept Donald Hoskins’ POW bracelet.

Now, he was finally home.

During the Vietnam War, the names of American Prisoners of War were put on metal bracelets, along with the date of their capture. Those bracelets were then sold to people all over the country, who wore them in support of the soldiers. Those who were listed as Missing In Action were also honored.

As she looks at the bracelet, which carries the block letters: “TSGT. DONALD RUSSELL HOSKINS, 4-26-72”, Rita Sullivan recalled what brought her to this point.

“Lowell Wayne was home from serving in Vietnam, and there was a company in Lima, Ohio, that was selling stickers and other items supporting POWs and the war. I ordered some POW remembrance stickers to put on letters that I was mailing, and I decided that I needed to order a POW bracelet to show my support of those men,” she said. “When it came in the mail, the card that came with it told me that Donald Hoskins was from Madison.”

The card contained in the package told Rita Sullivan that Technical Sergeant Donald Hoskins was lost in Vietnam on April 26th, 1972, and that his hometown was Madison, Indiana; and his date of birth was January 5th, 1929.

Lowell Wayne Sullivan, who has served in many positions within the American Legion, including being the state commander, said that many times companies had lists of names and hometowns, and when someone would order one of the bracelets, they tried to match the person with a POW who was from a nearby hometown — but he also acknowledged that it could have been pure chance.

“When Lowell Wayne said his name, I knew exactly where it was,” Rita Sullivan said of the bracelet. “I heard that the family is going to have some sort of memorial service for him. If they do, I’d like to go and give them this bracelet.”

Over the years, Rita Sullivan says that she’s thought about Donald Hoskins often; even discussing him with families with the same name here in Switzerland County.

“When I’d hear someone tell me that their last name was ‘Hoskins’, I’d always ask if they had relatives in Madison,” she said. “I never really found anyone here who was related, but I’m happy that he still has family in Madison.”

The announcement that DNA evidence had positively identified Donald Hoskins was also somewhat bittersweet for Rita Sullivan, an ardent supporter of veterans and veteran causes.

“I wore it for about three years,” she said quietly as she stared down at the bracelet in her hand. “I felt really guilty when I took it off. It was like I was giving up on him. He was a hero of this country, and I’m glad that his family finally has some closure.”

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After 34 years, Donald Hoskins’ remains were positively identified through a DNA match with his sister, Polly Wehner. The Department of Defense officially announced the match last Monday, May 1st.

Donald Hoskins was a crew member on an Air Force C-130E Hercules aircraft when he was shot down by North Vietnamese forces in April of 1972. The crew was flying a resupply mission to Anh Loc, South Vietnam, at the time of the downing.

A technical sergeant in the Air Force, Donald Hoskins had completed nearly 20 years in the military when he was shot down. He had served in Okinawa and other overseas locations; and earned the Silver Star, the Flying Cross, and a Purple Heart, among other citations.

He was truly an American hero.

Donald Hoskins’ widow, Jeanette “Jan” Hoffman Hoskins, now lives in Delaware; but he has a sister, Polly Wehner; and a brother, Owen Hoskins, who still reside in the Madison area.

Donald and Jeanette Hoskins had two sons: Ronald Hoskins, a pilot from New York; and Paul Hoskins, who works for a computer company in Cincinnati.

According to an Associated Press report, the remains of another member of the flight crew from that fateful day, Staff Sergeant Calvin C. Cooke of Washington, D.C., were also positively identified and announced on Monday. The pilot of the plane, Major Harry A. Amesbury, had previously been identified.

According to the Associated Press, after the crash, enemy activity prevented any recovery attempts until three years later. The search for remains too many years, and officials also interviewed several people who witnessed the crash.

In 1993, the crash site was finally excavated; and additional remains and personal items were discovered.

The official announcement has brought closure to a family that has wondered about the fate of Donald Hoskins for more than 30 years. Owen Hoskins, who himself was shot down four times while serving in Vietnam; said that someone had visited him in the past who had seen his brother’s plane crash.

“He told me, ‘Don’t have any hopes’,” Owen Hoskins told the Associated Press.

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According to the Library of Congress database on Vietnam War POWs and MIAs, as of November 7th, 2001, there were still 1,948 Americans still listed as unaccounted for in Southeast Asia.

Of those, 524 are unaccounted for in North Vietnam; 945 are unaccounted for in South Vietnam; 411 in Laos; 60 in Cambodia; and eight in China. This number includes 459 soldiers who were lost at sea or over water.

According to the same database, since the war ended in 1973, 637 American soldiers had been accounted for from Southeast Asia.

Of those, 456 were from Vietnam; 156 from Laos; 23 from Cambodia; and two from China. The two from China were identified through ashes returned to the U.S.; and 34 of those accounted for from Vietnam were the remains from the official “Died in Captivity” list that was provided by the Vietnamese in 1973.

Since the fall of Saigon in 1975, the U.S. Government has acquired 21,794 reports possibly pertaining to Americans in Southeast Asia, according to the Library of Congress.