Robert Francis Preiss, Jr.
Staff Sergeant, United States Army
28 Years of Anguish Subside; Pain Remains
WASHINGTON -- One Friday night in late May 1970 Donald Preiss was preparing for a night of fun when bearers of devastating news knocked on his door.
"My whole life changed from getting ready to go out with the guys to holding on to my mother as we spoke to two Army officers," said Preiss. "They had the uncomfortable task of being the messengers to deliver the news that Bobby was missing in action."
The officers told Preiss and his parents that Army Staff Sergeant Robert Preiss was missing in action May 12, 1970, while leading a six-man Special Forces reconnaissance team in Vietnam. Efforts to recover his body failed because of heavy enemy action and difficult terrain. Six days later, a recovery team was unable to locate Preiss' body. The team reported that a rockslide had covered the body with large boulders.
Preiss said about two months later, on July 18, the family received notice that Bobby had been killed. Then after nearly 25 years of anguish and uncertainty, the Preiss family received a morsel of hope. In March 1995, joint U.S. and Lao teams began searching the area where Preiss was killed. On the fourth try, in February of this year, members of the Joint Task Force Full Accounting and the Central Identification Laboratory in Hawaii recovered human remains and personal effects they believed could be Preiss'.
"My brother was the only one killed within a 10-square-mile area," Donald Preiss said. "The Army contacted two guys in Atlanta who were with my brother in Laos the day he was killed. They questioned the guys about the kind of material they left behind and if it matched everything the military found."
The results of DNA testing, anthropological analysis of the remains and other evidence confirmed Robert Preiss' identity. DoD officials notified the family on June 8 of this year. After memorial services in Cornwall-on-the-Hudson, New York, the fallen soldier's remains were to be buried with military honors on August 3 at Arlington National Cemetery. The family chose Arlington over the family's burial site because, Donald Preiss said, "my brother was big on soldiering -- a proud soldier, a very good soldier."
When DoD officials told Preiss that his brother's remains might have been found in Laos, he and his two sisters were "guardedly excited." But "we were worried," Preiss said. Donald Preiss and his wife, Kathleen, live in Cornwall with their four children. His sister, Carole Fitzgerell, 57, lives in Inverness, Florida, and is a human resources manager for a chain of banks. His other sister, Susan Martin, 49, is a medical center administrator in Fishkill, N.Y., and has two children.
Myriad questions flooded their minds: "Is it really possible for them to get my brother's remains out? Could a monsoon wash them away before they could get them out? Are they really sure it's my brother's remains?" "Our reactions to Bobby's death are the same," he said. "We all suffered through the last three-and-a-half years with great anxiety and hope. Preiss, 45, said his older brother was 25 when he was killed. "He would be 53 now," he noted. He said the whole family has been saddened and in anguish since his brother's death. But, he said, "probably the biggest sadness is the fact that our mom and dad will never get to see his remains brought home for burial -- especially our mom. Mom passed away in April 1984 and Dad died in November 1996."
"Our mom never gave up on the thought that
he could still be alive and that he would knock on the door some day,"
Preiss said. "This thought lasted for 14 years until her death. I personally
watched my mother die of a broken heart. " When people talk about war and
casualties suffered, he said, "the numbers are much greater when you consider
what happens to families of all the wounded or killed from both sides.
Until you suffer through this experience you do not know about it. "We
think the work the Joint Task Force Full Accounting did was unbelievable,"
Preiss said, "and my family will never forget them. "It has been very difficult
dealing with the death of my brother. After all these years you heal a
Missing No More
A Soldier Returns From Vietnam
2 August 1998
Don Preiss labored more than a decade to bring
his brother home from the Laotian jungle, but yesterday's memorial service
for him - 28 years after he was killed in the Vietnam War - seemed timely
nonetheless. "It's definitely a better time for me," Preiss said, recalling
his state of mind in May, 1970, when he learned that his brother, Green
Beret Sgt. Robert Preiss of Roosevelt, had been killed during his second
tour in the war. "I would never have been able to figure this thing out
if I was 17 years old." Yesterday Don Preiss, now 45, chewed gum during
a memorial service for his brother at Quigley Brothers Funeral Home in
upstate Cornwall. It helped keeped his jaw clenched, he said. Except when
Don Benack of Syracuse, a Vietnam veteran who never knew Robert Preiss,
handed him a silver bracelet with his brother's name engraved. "I've been
wearing it for 15 years," Benack said, as he took off the bracelet, revealing
a stark tan line and replaced it with another, this one honoring another
soldier. Near the flag-draped casket guarded by two Green Berets, six bracelets
with Robert Preiss' name had been placed by other veterans on a table surrounded
by dozens of flower wreaths, one with a card reading: "To the last man
home. God bless your soul. From a Vietnam Veteran." About 400 veterans,
family members and friends attended the service in this Hudson Valley town
heard Don Preiss and his sisters say the memorial was as much about healing
the nation as about settling their own quest to bring their brother home.
That odyssey began in 1988 when Don Preiss filed a Freedom of Information
Act request and found out the details of his brother's death on May 12,
1970, which the Pentagon had kept secret. In 1995 a joint U.S.-Laotian
team unearthed bone fragments believed to be Robert Preiss' and in June
the Army officially identified the remains. They were flown to Newark and
brought to Cornwall on Wednesday, with motorcycle escort by the Nam Knights
of America from New Jersey. "We're all in this together," said Richard
Martin, a non-Knight who traveled from Paramus, N.J., to the services yesterday.
"It's like bringing a family member home." Dressed in jeans, leather, suits
or old, tattered uniforms, groups including the Army Special Forces Association,
the Vietnam Veterans of America and the American Legion stood before Robert
Preiss' casket. When the Legion had its turn, member Roy Cowen, who served
in World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War delivered an address
that ended "Farewell, soldier" as taps played on a tape recorder in the
background and the room erupted in tears. Yesterday was the first time
Don Preiss and his two sisters, Carole Fitzgerrell, 57, of Inverness, Fla.,
and Susan Martin, 49, of Fishkill, had attended a memorial service for
their brother. "The last few years I've been excited that he was coming
home," Fitzgerrell said yesterday. "Now that it's happening, it's sad -
the extremes are crazy. It's hard to put into words." There were two memorial
services in 1970 - one in Cornwall where the family lived when Robert Preiss
was killed and one in Roosevelt where he grew up. Don Preiss and his sisters
attended neither. Instead, Preiss said, his father whisked the family away
to Florida. "His theory was: `We're moving on. That's it. That's the end.
Let's go.' " People called Robert Preiss a hero. But at Don Preiss' high
school, students were protesting the war and at the Preiss home the family
did not discuss the tragedy. Their mother died in 1984 and father in 1996.
"That is one of the saddest things about this weekend," Don Preiss said.
"My parents aren't around to witness it." He said that his mother died
"of a broken heart" because she lived not knowing the truth about her son's
death and always hoped that he might return. Yesterday Lt. Col. Patrick
Higgins of the 5th Special Forces Group, of which Robert Preiss was a member,
gave to his family two medals - the Purple Heart and a Good Conduct Medal
- which they should have received in 1970. "It was an oversight," Higgins
said of the delay. A funeral ceremony for Robert Preiss will be held tomorrow
(August 3, 1998) at 9:30 a.m. at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia.
Army to Search For Dead G.I.
1 January 1998
Army search teams next week will begin scouring a remote hillside in Laos on a long-delayed mission to bring a hard-knocks Queens kid home from the secret war that killed him.
Lt. Col. Roger King, a spokesman for the Pentagon's Joint Task Force Full Accounting in Hawaii, said yesterday, "We have received permission from the government of Laos to go in" and find the remains of Green Beret Sgt. Robert Preiss, who was 25 when he fell in a firefight May 12, 1970.
King said that about 40 Army grunts and forensic techs plan a month-long dig beginning Jan. 13 in Xekong province near the jungle village of Ban Glo.
In May 1995, a local hunter found bone fragments that DNA tests showed belonged to the high school footballer from Richmond Hill whom everybody knew as Bobby.
The teams will set up a base camp and shuttle by helicopter to look for and excavate the remains of Preiss and search two other sites for servicemen killed in action, King said.
Don Preiss, the soldier's younger brother, said he and his sisters Carol and Susan "have been holding our breath for them to go and do this so many times before, but it never happened."
"Our plan still is to bury Bobby at Arlington [National Cemetery]," he said. As a Bronze Star and Purple Heart hero killed in action, Bobby Preiss should easily qualify for Arlington interment.
Bobby Preiss' return would end a long ordeal. The family was first told by the Army that he was missing in Vietnam, since the government would not admit to the undeclared war in Laos.
It was only in 1988, when Don Preiss filed a Freedom of Information action, that the U.S. was forced to acknowledge his brother was killed in Laos while leading a six-man patrol to scout the Ho Chi Minh Trail supply route of the Viet Cong.
Preiss, Robert F Jr
Born 27 April 1945
Died 12 June 1970
US Army, Sergeant
Res: Cornwall, NY,
Section 66, Grave 5139
Buried 12 June 1970
Page Updated: 29 October 2000 Updated: 10 September 2001 Updated: 7 July 2003 Updated: 15 January 2006
Photo By M. R. Patterson, 27 June 2003