COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) -- Mitch McGouldrick, all of 11 years old, walked home from Cranbrook Elementary School to get a bite of lunch. It would be a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, same as it was every other day.
But the blue sedan inching its way down Upper Arlington's Rightmire Boulevard was about to change everything. It pulled to the curb. Then came the knock at the door.
The two officers who stood on the front stoop told Jacquelyn McGouldrick that her husband's B-57 bomber had gone down somewhere over Laos on Dec. 13, 1968. There had been no immediate recovery, and they had no answers. Air Force Col. Francis Jay McGouldrick Jr. officially became one of the Vietnam War's missing in action.
Mitch -- now 56-year-old Mitch Guess of Dublin -- recalls how stoically her mother absorbed the news: "She kept it all together. The men told us they didn't know much. They told us we would know something soon, that more information would come quickly. We thought, 'Well, the next day or two. Then we'll know.'"
The days turned into months. The months became years. The years stretched to decades.
For 45 years, the McGouldrick family waited.
The most-excruciating time was when the American prisoners of war finally started coming home. It was 1973, and no one in the McGouldrick house had ever lost hope.
The four sisters recall lining up beside their mother on the couch to watch the evening news, squinting to better see the grainy footage of thousands of men as they trudged down the ramps of the transport planes that had carried them home from war. In their uniforms, the men all looked the same. The girls checked every face. Each one looked like Daddy.
The sisters would point and nudge one another and ask: Is that him? That one, right there. Is that Daddy?
"It is still so crystal clear in my mind," said Marri Petrucci, who was just 4 when the plane her father co-piloted went down in a crash with another U.S. aircraft over Laos' Savannakhet Province. But she was old enough by the time peace was brokered to hope that he would be among them.
"We would sit there and watch for what seemed like hours. Waiting and wondering."
And so it was with shock, relief and more than a little disbelief when, decades later, about 10:30 p.m. on Sept. 3, Mitch spoke to the mortuary-affairs officer at Dover Air Force Base. There had been an extensive dig last year, and they found something. And they had DNA to match.
"He said they had a positive ID," Mitch said. She called her sisters one by one, and she told them all simply: It is over.
There remain 1,644 names on the Department of Defense's MIA/POW rolls from the Vietnam War. The government has categorized 599 of them as "no further pursuit." That means officials have determined that the service member is dead and no remains can be recovered.
But for each of the others, there probably is still someone, somewhere, clinging to hope.
Stories like the McGouldricks' ripple through the POW/MIA community, said Liz Flick, a regional co-coordinator based in Ohio for the National League of POW/MIA Families.
"All of the families are always grateful to hear the news of someone else's loved one, and they think, 'Maybe next time, it will be us,'" Flick said.
Over the years, U.S. administrations have attached varying levels of importance to the search for prisoners of war and the recovery of the remains of the missing.
Critics say that, especially as time goes by, the risk of the missions is too great, the cost too high, the payoff too little.
It all makes Flick cringe. "Too little?" she asked. "You tell that to the McGouldricks."
The latest news from the Department of Defense said there would be four ventures into Vietnam to look for missing servicemen in this fiscal year, each one requiring 95 American personnel. The next trip is scheduled to begin on Nov. 4. It is unclear, because of the federal government's shutdown, whether that will go on. Calls and emails went unreturned.
Flick hopes that the mission takes place. After all, she said, they aren't only for the missing.
"This means something to each of our active-duty personnel, too," she said. "It says to them that if something ever happens, we will not leave you behind."
There was little about Col. Francis McGouldrick that didn't scream Air Force.
A career military officer, he demanded order, and he commanded respect. The McGouldricks were transferred to a new post pretty much every four years. Colorado, Texas, Japan. They'd been all over. In 1964, they landed, quite literally, at Lockbourne Air Force Base (now Rickenbacker) in Columbus.
As part of his duties, McGouldrick taught air science at Ohio State University and was an Air Force ROTC commander, overseeing Angel Flight, a special drill team for women.
He adored his four daughters, and he doted on his wife.
"Daddy was so great with all of us," said Megan Genheimer of Dublin. She was 12 when her father's plane went down. "He was so strict, but he was such a daddy. He was so loving. We were very lucky."
Yet the McGouldrick girls were raised with certain expectations.
There was no sleeping in at this house, even on Saturdays. "As soon you are old enough to get out of your bed, you are old enough to make your bed," Megan said.
And don't even think about answering the phone with a hello. It was always, (Captain. Major. Whatever rank he held) McGouldrick's quarters. This is so and so ...
As Megan recalls it with a laugh: "We had to say our name so that if anyone ever reported we'd said something wrong, Daddy would know who it was."
Devout Catholics, they never missed a weekly Mass at St. Timothy on Thomas Lane. And their father never went a day without an iced coffee in the morning (a love that Mitch inherited) or an evening without a single Red Stripe beer (Marri lays claim to sharing her father's love of a cold one).
Megan? Well, she got her dad's warm-bloodedness. She remembers him shoveling January snow in just a white, short-sleeved T-shirt and some government-issue pants. Although she sweats, she tries to dress more appropriately on winter mornings.
Marri, as her sisters like to say with giggles, "was made in Japan." She is the youngest. She has few memories of her father. But one is vivid. He was deploying to Vietnam in the middle of the summer in the middle of a war. A neighbor loaded their father's bags into the back of a tan station wagon before taking him to a waiting plane.
"I see it like it was yesterday, him telling us goodbye," Marri says now. "It was a day like every other. Everyone tried to be normal. He was leaving, Mom was saying goodbye. We knew we'd see him in a year. It never leaves my mind, Mom saying he would be back."
But Col. McGouldrick didn't come home. Not a year later, anyway, as promised. Not in two. Not in 20.
As the years went by, the girls' emotions changed. At first, they believed him to be alive. They wanted him to be alive.
Then, over time, they realized that if he were alive, he would be a prisoner of war. That they could not bear.
Then the daughters grew up. They graduated from high school. They finished college. They married. Babies came along. Grandchildren. Each milestone brought thoughts of him.
For the girls, it was an abyss. A riddle with no answer.
"You don't want him to be gone. You don't want him to have died," Mitch said. "It's this trap, this never-ending moment of uncertainty."
Jacquelyn McGouldrick died of breast cancer in 1980 at the age of 46, never knowing what happened to the love of her life. If the McGouldrick daughters are bitter about anything -- the fourth and oldest is Melisa Hill, who lives in Oregon and was 13 when her father disappeared -- that is it.
But now they know. They know that when Jacquelyn died all those years ago, she learned the truth. "They're together. It's been their secret ever since. Only now, now we all know, too," Mitch says through her tears.
So here they are, the McGouldrick girls. Planning a funeral. What does one do, they wonder, after 45 years? Should there be an obituary? A local service? They aren't sure.
This, though, they know: The government will tear up the memorial stone at Gravesite MF-27 in a POW/MIA section of Arlington National Cemetery. Col. Francis Jay McGouldrick will instead be buried with full military honors just down the hill at Arlington. Same spot as his wife. His casket will go on top of hers.
The daughters have asked the government for a special funeral date. They want their father buried on Dec. 13. That is 45 years to the day his plane went down.
"This is all still a kind of pinch-me experience," Megan said. "But when we're in Washington and at that grave, then we'll know: He's home."
Information from: The Columbus Dispatch, http://www.dispatch.com