Joint POW/MIA team searches for missing troops
Stars and Stripes August 20, 2006
GYEONGGI PROVINCE, South Korea — They toil under the Korean summer sun all day, shoveling and sifting through dirt in the hopes that a few fragments will lead them to their goal.
There are no flashy “CSI”-style graphics and the case never gets wrapped up in 44 minutes (an hour minus commercials). Instead, the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command relies on exhaustive analysis and lots of manual labor to find the servicemembers who never made it home.
In a pear orchard about 30 minutes northwest of Camp Casey, a Hawaii-based JPAC team began digging on Aug. 11 in an attempt to find the remains of a long-lost U.S. soldier whom his comrades buried at a Chinese camp in 1951, during the Korean War.
They expect to be there through this week, pinpointing the soldier’s remains and avoiding doing any damage.
It’s grueling work but it’s also viewed as a three-year reward assignment for servicemembers with strong military résumés, team leader Marine Capt. Michael Craighead said.
“It’s an honor,” Craighead said. “I don’t mind the sweat. Not at all.”
The JPAC team brought 16 people to search for the missing soldier, including a 10-person recovery team and a four-person investigative team.
Team members’ specialties vary; this dig included a combat engineer, forensic photographer, linguist and even a tank crewmember.
Each year, JPAC conducts at least five Korean War-related missions and may be working at any of 200 sites around the world. More than 8,000 servicemembers are believed to be missing in Korea, with 2,000 of those in South Korea.
“When you go out to these places, people really open up their arms to you,” said Craighead, who also has gone on missions in Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and North Korea.
North Korea used to cooperate with JPAC’s missions until tensions recently escalated. However, Craighead says the North Koreans were very strict and watchful.
“That was a bit like being in a detention camp,” he said.
Defining success is tricky. The team does not always find remains it seeks or find remains where expected.
“It’s still not done until we find the guy and bring him back home,” Craighead said. “But if we don’t, someone else will come back and try … doing more investigations.”
Sometimes ruling out a particular location or narrowing possibilities is viewed as a success, said team spokesman Army Maj. Rumi Nielson-Green. “Some of these cases last for years,” she said.
Despite the time the job requires, team members say they’re driven by the possibility that they will be the ones to bring closure to a fallen comrade’s life.
“There is a lot of honor in bringing back the people who fought for us,” said Army Sgt. Mark Landa.
Team members sift dirt for clues
Searching for a soldier buried during the Korean War means looking for even the smallest shards of pottery, personal effects and other fragments that might lead to a discovery.
“There is no easy way to do this kind of thing,” said John Byrd, forensic anthropologist for a Hawaii-based Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command search team.
The team digs a “test pit” to establish the level of undisturbed soil. Then they dig grid squares to set up reference points.
Because the landscape has changed from a barren, flat area to a farm sloped by flooding, the team must locate house and pottery fragments in order to determine proximity to where the body may be buried.
Because of the sloping, the evidence may have moved downhill, team members said.
The JPAC team is relying on the memory of retired Command Sgt. Maj. Joseph L. Annello.
Annello made the trip after two hip replacements to help the team find the soldier, who was buried while he was a prisoner of war in 1951. (See related story: “Ex-POW aids search for soldier’s remains”)
The South Korean landowner also has helped, team members said.
The man grew up very close by and remembers the land as it was when the soldier was buried.
The soldier’s identity will be released when his remains are confirmed and next of kin notified, a JPAC spokeswoman said.
— Erik Slavin