Finding MIAs' remains in Vietnam is hard work, but fulfilling
LANG SON PROVINCE, Vietnam
For Master Sgt. Scott Riker, looking for Americans lost in combat worldwide is like looking for a ghost roaming through an unfamiliar house.
“Nobody knows where you died, where your body is,” he said. “It’s like your life is not complete.”
Riker works for the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command, the U.S. military organization responsible for recovering remains of U.S. troops who went missing in combat, sometimes more than a half-century ago.
He is part of a 17-member team searching for signs of two airmen who disappeared in 1967, when their F-4 Phantom fighter jet was shot down in what was then North Vietnam.
It can take years for JPAC researchers and excavation teams to confirm the deaths of missing servicemembers, many of whom disappeared in remote locations like the one Riker is working at now, in a rice paddy about 40 miles from the Chinese border.
It also takes a lot of money. In fiscal 2008, JPAC plans to spend $10 million in Vietnam alone, and $21 million looking for troops lost during the Vietnam War in that country plus Laos and Cambodia.
Despite the cost and time, most JPAC workers at this excavation site said they would want the U.S. military to look for them if they went missing in combat — if not for them, then for their families.
“I know there’s going to be somebody coming up and looking for me if I’m missing. I don’t know if it’s that important to me, but it’s important to my family,” said Capt. Kristoffer Mills, JPAC team commander.
Life is difficult for the team. Members spend long hours in the sun, digging and sifting through mud and dirt. They sometimes eat at Vietnamese restaurants, but meals are mostly packaged food they brought from home — granola bars, tuna, Chef Boyardee, beef jerky. They live in a basic, sometimes not very clean, hotel an hour’s drive from the site.
Some JPAC teams are stationed in even more remote locations.
While Mills’ team works in northwest Vietnam, two other JPAC teams are camping at excavation sites in the Vietnamese jungle, where snakes are a constant problem.
Still, team members say the work is fulfilling.
“I really like the mission, the historical aspect of it,” said Sgt. Adam Gomez, who is based in Seoul and among several servicemembers attached to JPAC for a single mission. “It’s a lot of hard work, but it’s worth it.”
He also said he would want JPAC to search for his remains, to bring closure to his family and friends.
“I’m dead. Whether I’m buried in the ground here or buried in the ground in the U.S., it’s all the same to me,” he said.
JPAC teams often don’t find the remains they’re looking for. But that doesn’t mean their time is a waste, said Sgt. Justin Mitchell, who works in mortuary affairs.
“It’s closer to actually finding the individual,” he said. “If we go to the site, that’s one possibility that’s crossed off so we can move on to the next one. It kind of narrows it down.”
Any remains found during an excavation are taken to JPAC’s identification lab in Hawaii, the largest in the world. It can take years to determine whether the remains belong to the missing servicemember.
Mitchell has worked on nine JPAC missions in the past three years, and he doesn’t know whether human remains were found during those excavations.
Still, he said working with JPAC is an opportunity of a lifetime. During any repatriation ceremony, when remains arriving in Hawaii are received with full military honors, he feels a swell of pride, even if he didn’t help find that servicemember.
Americans back home are often surprised when he tells them about his job. Most don’t realize that the U.S. is still looking for its missing troops.
“Everywhere I go, people tell me, ‘I want to do what you do,’” he said.
The U.S. military is among the few that search for its servicemembers lost in combat — a source of pride to many JPAC team members.
Sgt. Rob Danford re-enlisted when he came back from Iraq so he could work with JPAC, which has workers from all branches of the military. So far, he’s been on seven recovery missions in Southeast Asia and Europe.
“I love it. I put my heart into it,” said Danford, who is in charge of telecommunications for the team. “I do this to benefit the families and the organization and myself.”
For Spc. Joel Wood, working for JPAC has helped bring him and his father, a former Marine who fought in the Vietnam War, closer.
“I’ve actually seen some of what he kind of went through. You hear the stories all day, but to come here and see the terrain and feel the heat — it lets you know what they went through,” Wood said.
Team members say returning a missing servicemember to his family makes the effort worthwhile.
“I’ve seen and I’ve had family members who are still wondering what happened to their father or husband. When we ID that individual and close the case, they are so appreciative,” Riker said.
“I’m really glad that I can have closure after all these years,” said Sally Pier, 72, whose brother, Pfc. Domenico “Nick” DiSalvo, was found by JPAC and his body returned to the United States this summer.
He disappeared in 1950, during one of the bloodiest battles of the Korean War. He was 20 years old.
Pier worried that her brother might have been a prisoner of war, or might have had amnesia and forgotten about his family in Ohio. Over the decades, her parents and two sisters died, always wondering what happened to DiSalvo.
She learned this summer that he died of gunshot wounds. That didn’t bring comfort to her, but learning that he died instantly and wasn’t a prisoner did.
She said the time and money spent finding her brother, now buried in a veteran’s cemetery, were worth it. But his return has been a mixed blessing. Since the day his body arrived in the United States, she’s been emotional and sometimes has had the “shakes.” She believes she’s grieving again for her brother, and for all of the family members who didn’t get to grieve for him.
“It stirred up a lot in me. All of these hurts are coming up,” she said. “It’s because they found him, and I’m happy to know I have closure with him, but I have to go through all of these hurts.”
“I’m grieving for a lot of people who didn’t know what happened to him. When I get through all the grieving, then I’ll be happy knowing what happened to him.”
Teamwork is a key part of search effort
This isn’t your ordinary mission.
Here, in a Vietnamese rice paddy dotted by a few one-room concrete houses, there are no uniforms and members of all four military branches work side by side, digging through the sticky clay and red dirt.
And no earth is moved without the orders of a civilian — in this case, the anthropologist in charge of the excavation.
The 17 Americans on this Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command mission are looking for the remains of two airmen lost when their F-4 Phantom fighter-bomber jet was shot down here 40 years ago. Team members say the work is different from anything they’ve done before.
“You don’t have somebody shooting at you here,” said Capt. Kristoffer Mills, the team’s military leader, who spent a year in Iraq. But there are difficulties.
“You’ve got to build a team basically out of people who have never worked together before, because you’re going to be out here for 45 days,” Mills said.
A unit going to Iraq may live and work together for months before a deployment. A JPAC team meets for the first time about 10 days before it leaves Hawaii for its mission.
Team members also have to learn what to do to not offend their hosts. In Vietnam, that means no yelling, no pointing and no palms up.
“Being in Iraq has helped me,” Mills said. “In Iraq, you’re dealing with a different culture. We interact with the people here the same way,” he said.
“There’s still cases and sites we haven’t gone to. You build rapport with the people so you’re welcome to come back.”