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Fallen but not forgotten: 'I can't say enough'

By John Rutherford, Producer, NBC News, Washington

Growing up in New Jersey, Joe Valencio always held out hope that his father, missing in action in the Korean War, was still alive somewhere in Asia.

"Especially when you're a kid, there's all kinds of conjecture," Joe, now 60, said in an interview. "The Russians came forward and said there were POWs from the Korean War in Russia. He could also have been in China or maybe living somewhere in Korea, for all I knew. Those were the thoughts of a 12 year old."

By the time Joe was in his 20s, he had pretty much given up hope.

"I felt he was not coming back, and I hoped he wasn't in some camp somewhere or something like that," Joe said.

Joe's uncertainty over his father's fate ended in March when the Army notified him that the remains of Army Master Sgt. Cirildo Valencio had been recovered in North Korea and identified by the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command's Central Identification Laboratory in Hawaii.

"Scientists used mitochondrial DNA and dental comparisons in the identification of the
remains," the Pentagon said in a news release.

Joe felt a sense of closure but also a deep sense of appreciation to the Army for finding and identifying his father's remains 58 years after his battalion was overrun by Chinese Communist troops at the outset of the Korean War.

"I can't say enough about those people, the ones who go out there in the field and the guy who presented my father's case to me, and especially the forensic guys, the guys in Hawaii," Joe said. "I can't even express my appreciation properly for the work they do."

No other country puts more resources and effort into recovering and identifying its missing service members than the United States does, according to U.S. Air Force Capt. Mary Olsen of the Pentagon's POW/Missing Personnel office.

"Much of other countries' initiatives for looking for their missing stemmed from the example this country set," she said.

Capt. Olsen said her office often advises other countries on how it's done. Among those countries are South Korea, Japan, Israel, Kuwait and Vietnam.

"I think the citizens from other countries see that the American families and public hold the U.S. accountable to find this nation's missing, so they are turning to their governments for the same reason," she said.

In Vietnam alone, the remains of an estimated 300,000 Vietnamese soldiers have not yet been found, compared to 1,759 Americans still missing from the war there.

(Family photo of Army Master Sgt. Cirildo Valencio)

Click here to view tributes to the 341 U.S. service members killed this year in Iraq and Afghanistan, including the following 13 casualties from last week:

1. Marine Cpl. Stewart Trejo, 25, of Whitefish, Mont.

2. Army Sgt. Kenneth Gibson, 25, of Christiansburg, Va.

3. Army Pvt. John Mattox, 23, of Daingerfield, Texas.

4. Marine Sgt. Michael Ferschke Jr., 22, of Maryville, Tenn.

5. Army Cpl. James Hale, 23, of Columbus, Ohio.

6. Marine Lance Cpl. Tony Mihalo, 23, of Naperville, Ill.

7. Marine Lance Cpl. Juan Lopez-Castaneda, 19, of Mesa, Ariz.

8. Marine Pfc. Daniel McGuire, 19, of Mashpee, Mass.

9. Marine Lance Cpl. Jacob Toves, 27, of Grover Beach, Calif.

10. Army Pvt. Janelle King, 23, of Merced, Calif.

11. Army 1st Lt. Donald Carwile, 29, of Oxford, Miss.

12. Army Pfc. Paul Conlon Jr., 21, of Somerville, Mass.

13. Army Staff Sgt. Kristopher Rodgers, 29, of Sturgis, Mich.

Washington Producer John Rutherford is a decorated Vietnam veteran. He also posts stories on the military at www.fieldnotes.msnbc.com (click on "John Rutherford" under "categories") and at http://john-rutherford.newsvine.com. The tribute gallery can be found at http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/22802019/.