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Shaheen, veterans' families work to get N. Korea sanctions bill amended to allow MIA searches

Portsmouth man hopes to learn what happened to father

PORTSMOUTH, N.H. —A coalition of veterans' families has helped push for a change in congressional legislation to protect efforts to find the remains of missing POWs and MIAs in North Korea.

The North Korea Sanctions Enforcement Act was on its way from the House to the Senate when Rick Downes, president of Families of Korean and Cold War POW/MIAs, noticed that the legislation didn't address humanitarian efforts to account for the remains.

The bill calls for increased sanctions on North Korea.

Downes' father, Lt. Harold Downes, was 26 in January 1952 when his B-36 was shot down over North Korea. He has been listed as missing in action ever since.

Rick Downes, of Portsmouth, said he and his family have been looking for closure ever since. His sister was born two months after their father disappeared.

"She has a different kind of wound that she's working on, and so we are with an organization of family members across the country that are trying to heal that wound," Rick Downes said.

Rick Downes said that his organization works to promote the fullest possible accounting of all the missing.

"There's 7,800 guys, and over 5,000 are waiting in North Korea, in some way, for us to find them," he said.

There were some recovery missions between the late 1990s and 2005, but political tensions with North Korea shut a door he is trying to push back open. As tensions re-escalated, he contacted U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen about exempting POW/MIA missions from sanctions.

"So we included that amendment, it passed, the bill has passed, and it's on its way to the president's desk," Shaheen said.

Rick Downes said that those protections make sure that if an opportunity arises, his group can take it.

"We want to get back in," he said. "I want to find out. I want to go where my father's plane went down. I want to talk to the villager and say, 'Yes, he was buried over there,' or, 'Yes, we saw him marched off as a POW.' We can't do that if there's any kind of hindrance at all."

He said the coalition continues to work with both New Hampshire senators on getting access to Korean War records and reports of American sightings that still remain classified.