MISSOULA -- Judi Boyer Bouchard's voice shook with excitement when she called the Missoulian newsroom Wednesday.
She had a letter to send and needed an email address. She didn’t say what it was about.
The last time we talked with Bouchard was in 2008. From her home in central Florida, she and her mother, Dorothy, from the family home in Illinois, related the story of their brother and son, Alan, who moved to Missoula in the mid-1960s to attend forestry school at the University of Montana.
Alan Boyer dropped out of college at the height of the Vietnam War and joined the Army, they said. It had been 40 years since the day in 1968 he and two other Green Berets were left behind by a helicopter fleeing heavy fire in the jungles of Laos. His family hadn’t heard from him since.
They clung to the hope that he’d been captured and was alive. They shared the agony of thousands of families from dozens of wars whose loved ones disappear on the battlefields of war.
Had her brother been killed and his body returned, Bouchard could have grieved and gone on with things, she said eight years ago.
“But when you don’t know, it’s just like this open wound," she said. "A day doesn’t go by when I don’t think about Alan and wonder what happened.”
Her wondering is over.
“It is with a grateful heart that I am writing to share news about my brother Alan,” according to Bouchard’s letter that came by email Wednesday. “On March 7, the eve of what would have been Alan’s 70th birthday, the Army … called with news: Remains were identified by DNA as Alan’s.”
Bouchard followed her brother to UM and was a student living in Jesse Hall when he disappeared. She graduated, returned home to the Midwest, then returned to Missoula, where she stayed for nine years, working in human resources at the university and living in Lincolnwood.
Last week she shared the news with hundreds of friends and supporters over the years. She wrote that she’d been visited that same day in her Leesburg, Florida, home by five men from Army Special Forces, the Defense Department’s POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA), and Michael Mee, the Army’s chief of casualty operations center.
In a touching meeting, they presented Bouchard with her brother’s medals, including a Silver Star, the third-highest military decoration in the U.S. Armed Forces.
They also delivered the Army’s official report on Boyer’s case. A woman whom Bouchard called an activist in Laos had turned in to the U.S. government a shard of a long leg bone she’d been given by three Lao nationals referred to as “remains traders.”
Both Bouchard and her mother had provided DNA samples years ago.
The DNA match to Alan’s leg bone were “truly amazing,” Bouchard said.
“The forensic anthropologists said it was the most specific matched set they’d seen,” said Ann Mills-Griffiths, who chairs the National League of POW-MIA Families. “It wasn’t a large portion of the remains, but to get that high degree of accuracy in the match is just incredible.”
Until this month, Alan Boyer was one of seven western Montanans still unaccounted for from the Vietnam War.
Jack Ishum Dempsey of Helena remains on the list compiled by the DPAA. Seventeen Montanans in total remain on the list, which can be found at www.dpaa.mil/OurMissing/VietnamWar.
On March 28, 1968, Boyer, a sergeant, was on a reconnaissance mission in the jungles of Laos 15 miles from the Vietnamese border. He was with fellow Green Berets rifleman Charles Huston of Ohio, intelligence Sgt. George Brown of Florida, and seven South Vietnamese soldiers.
It was a rugged and dangerous sector that housed the North Vietnamese control center on the Ho Chi Minh Trail, and the soldiers encountered an unknown enemy force. A helicopter that came to rescue them couldn’t land in the dense canopy. According to a report on pownetwork.org, six of the South Vietnamese scrambled to safety up a rope ladder and the seventh was climbing aboard when the ground fire intensified, forcing the chopper to leave the area.
Boyer began to climb the ladder but it broke, either in the foliage or in the ground fire. He tumbled to the ground, but the other two Americans appeared unhurt. A six-hour ground search four days later turned up no sign of them. Meanwhile, Charles and Dorothy Boyer were notified back home in Illinois that their son was missing in action.
“We still have 300 missing and unaccounted for in Laos,” Mills-Griffiths said Friday. “Most of them were air crew and special ops doing reconnaissance across the border when we weren’t really there. But we were really there.”
One of the heartbreaks the Boyer family suffered came at the end of the Vietnam War, when the POWs were released from Vietnam. Alan wasn’t among them. They didn’t know yet that he was a victim of U.S. participation in the concurrent “Secret War” in Laos. The U.S. government officially acknowledged its involvement in 1997, 22 years after the war ended.
Bouchard cast a wide net when announcing the news. Among those who received her email was Chuck Hubbard of Bigfork. Now 71, Hubbard was a brother to Boyer in the Theta Chi fraternity at UM.
“I didn’t know Alan too, too terribly well, but he did live in the house, so we associated that way,” Hubbard said Friday.
He and his frat brothers lost track of Boyer after he joined the Army. They knew he was missing in Vietnam, but Hubbard said, “We didn’t keep up with it too much at that time.”
Years later he came across Boyer’s story on a POW/MIA website and wrote a short tribute. Bouchard responded, and though the two have never met, they’ve kept in touch since.
Last September, on the Virtual Vietnam Veterans Wall of Faces, Hubbard found himself composing a longer, more heartfelt message, addressing it to Boyer himself.
“I had no idea I was going to ramble,” Hubbard said with a chuckle. “In all honesty, I shed a few tears when I was reminiscing. Even though I wasn’t terribly close to him, he was just a good fellow.”
“Brother Al,” Hubbard wrote, “I wish you would come back, aged like me, not looking like the 22 year olds we once were, but strong, full of life, honest and sincere as I know you to be …
“Should you not come back in Earthly form, we shall clasp hands again in time. A hug, a cheer, sing the Theta Chi songs and Up With Montana Boys … maybe a beer, a long chat with friends and brothers.”
End to uncertainty
Charles Boyer died in 1995. He was, his daughter said, “a super brilliant, really great guy.”
His son’s disappearance in Southeast Asia and the uncertainty that dogged the family for all those years were “obviously the saddest part of his life,” Bouchard said.
A few years after Alan went missing, the Boyers started a scholarship fund at UM. The Alan Lee Boyer scholarship still gives at least two $1,000 scholarships each year to good but needy students.
Dorothy Boyer was active in the National League of POW-MIA Families -- and a lot of other things -- for the last 45 years of her life. Bouchard traveled with her mother several times to the headquarters of the identification lab for POWs and MIAs in Hawaii and once, in 2001, to the U.S. Embassy in Laos.
Dorothy died in 2013, just shy of her 93rd birthday. In her obituary, Alan was listed as a survivor.
“When her mother passed away the reaction was ‘at least she finally knows,’” recalled Mills-Griffith, who has headed the National League of Families since 1978 and has known Alan Boyer’s family for even longer. She lost her own brother in a plane crash in Vietnam, and he remains on the unaccounted-for list.
The identification of Boyer's remains, she said, is an end to uncertainty for Bouchard.
"You have finality," she said. "It’s not that trendy word ‘closure.’ When you have somebody missing like we have and they just disappeared ... having that concrete answer lifts such an incredible burden off of you.”
Plenty of support
Some details of Boyer’s recovery, such as where and when the leg bone was found, remain classified. Bouchard has posted her letter heralding the positive DNA identification on POW/MIA websites, and included the date June 22 on some of them.
That’s the first day of the League of Families annual meeting in Arlington, Virginia. And it’s when Alan Boyer’s casket will roll through Arlington National Cemetery behind six white horses in the “Old Guard” Caisson Platoon. His remains will be buried with full military honors.
“I prayed every day, but I did not think it was possible due to the nature of his disappearance,” Bouchard said. “They had done so many investigations and excavations. When they called me, I was in total shock.”
Calls and emails have poured in, she said. So many people -- whether they knew her brother, wore his name on a POW bracelet or only knew his story -- have been in contact. Best wishes from those in the special forces, particularly the special operations community, are especially heartening.
"I’ve had phone calls and many, many of these soldiers are crying,” Bouchard said. “It’s truly overwhelming.”
She thanked all those who helped find her brother and others -- the National League of Families that has pushed the government of the years to keep on looking; the DPAA; the analysts, investigators and excavation teams, and the friends and strangers who’ve worn his bracelets.
Bouchard vowed at the end of her letter to keep doing all she can to support efforts to find and identify the war veterans who disappeared with no apparent trace.
“Please remember all the POW/MIAs who still remain unaccounted for,” she wrote. "Their families still wait.”