He didn’t want to make a sound, but as U.S. Army Staff Sgt. James Van Bendegom’s heavy boots made way through the patrol route on the border between South Vietnam and Cambodia on July 12, 1967, there was no stopping the rustle of leaves as they made a closer marriage to the ground. And so he trudged along the path following the man in front of him and leading those behind, until they all heard the sound of enemy arms: “pop, pop, pop.”
Van Bendegom and his men were under attack, and though they fought valiantly, they were overrun by the enemy forces. Unable to navigate away from the melee, Van Bendegom was captured and sent to a prisoner of war camp. Through reports brought back by POWs who returned after the war, it was learned that Van Bendegom lost his life from wounds sustained during the attack.
For nearly 47 years, Van Bendegom’s whereabouts were unknown. Though his family understood he would not be returning home from Vietnam, the fact that his remains were unrecovered broadened the sense of hurt surrounding his death.
That hurt was partially relieved in October 2014 when the scientist at the Central Identification Laboratory in Hawaii positively identified a set of remains in its possession as those belonging to Van Bendegom.
“It helped us in healing,” said Mike Van Bendegom, James’ brother, in regards to the news his brother was identified and would be returned to Wisconsin. Mike was surprised that the search for his brother continued years after his death, and views the efforts of his country and the personnel accounting community to account for his brother as “phenomal.”
James Van Bendegom was an All-American boy who grew up in Wisconsin. Interested in hunting and fishing, he was filled with love for life and love for his country. Dropping out of high school his junior year in order to enlist into the army, Van Bendegom continued the tradition of military service that his father, a World War II veteran, began.
Mike, now 68, still remembers the time he spent with his brother when they shared bunk beds in his childhood home, and how they delivered newspapers together during their teenage years. Such memories flood back and mingle with the pronounced feeling of loss that he holds when he thinks of James.
"We miss him everyday, and [his identification] brings it to the surface,” said Mike. “[But] thanks to the military for doing this, and thanks for bringing closure to our family.”
It is that sense of closure that gently relieves the void left by losing his beloved brother.
“He’s looking down on us and smiling that [we] finally got some closure,” said Mike.