For the first time since Joint Task Force-Full Accounting in Hawaii was formed in 1992, its officials have dispatched specially trained search dogs to locate remains of U.S. servicemen missing from the Vietnam War.

“Panzer” and “Maximus,” belonging to the Rhode Island State Police department, now are in Vietnam with a 10-member excavation team, part of JTF-FA’s 72nd Vietnam mission.

The mission includes about 95 Americans who will join representatives from Vietnam in recovery excavations planned for two provinces in the country.

“I would characterize the initial results as encouraging, and our initial assessment as cautiously optimistic,” Lt. Col. Steve Hawley, commander of JTF’s Detachment 2 in Hanoi, said about the dogs via e-mail.

Hawley said Rhode Island State Trooper Matthew Zarella trained the dogs personally to detect some aspect of human remains that are aged.

“The dogs actually don’t alert on decomposing bodies,” he said. “Rather, they detect some unknown aspect — gas or odor — of skeletal remains as they decompose within the ground and even within ground underwater.”

Human-remains search dogs have been surprisingly successful in recent years with U.S. police departments in locating victims of crime, disaster and suicide, said Capt. Gina Jackson, a JTF spokeswoman. She said the dogs successfully have pinpointed bodies buried both underground and underwater, some of which had been in place for years.

Jackson said JTF-FA officials obtained the Socialist Republic of Vietnam government’s approval to evaluate use of the dog team there. Those searches are expected to last until March 20.

Hawley added that Vietnamese officials “support this experimental employment of the dog team as a sort of ‘proof of concept.’ When we are done early in March, we will jointly assess the dog team’s effectiveness and … make a determination on whether to pursue further use of the team.”

Trooper Zarrella is working with an anthropologist from CILHI and various JTF-FA personnel in Vietnam.

Zarella, a K-9 handler for almost all of his 13 years in law enforcement, told the Honolulu Star Bulletin newspaper his German shepherds have different but essential skills finding missing persons.

Before heading to Vietnam, the dogs spent 10 days at Hawaii’s Hickam Air Force Base getting accustomed to a tropical climate, riding on helicopters and running through drills and simulations.

One of the dogs, 1-year-old Max, has been trained to locate human remains by searching for scents of certain chemical byproducts caused by decomposition, Zarrella told the Star Bulletin.

Based on dog handlers’ past experiences, Zarrella said, he “is confident Max will succeed in sniffing out remains” that might be as old as four decades. Zarrella said Max has been trained to hunt for remains that may be buried as deep as 1 foot.

The other dog, a 9-year-old female named Panzer, is trained to find missing persons and drowning victims.

Dr. John Turco, a Rhode Island veterinarian in charge of the dogs’ welfare, said the animals’ hardest challenges will be “a lot of unknowns, such as unexploded ordnance, snakes, wildlife and the heat.”

Since its 1992 inception, Joint Task Force-Full Accounting has conducted investigations and recovery operations leading to recovery of 566 remains from Southeast Asia.

There are 1,444 U.S. servicemembers still listed as missing in Vietnam, among 1,889 missing in all of Southeast Asia, according to the JTF Web site.

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