Recovery work in Laos tough, rewarding
Stars and Stripes August 29, 2006
MISAWA AIR BASE, Japan — The mud was deep, the heat thick, and sweat drenched T-shirts in 10 minutes.
But walking to work on the Ho Chi Minh trail made a month in the jungle easier to bear for Staff Sgt. Eric R. McCoy.
The independent-duty medical technician from Misawa was in Laos all of July doing what he called some of the hardest yet most rewarding work of his military career. He was part of a recovery team with the Hawaii-based Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command (JPAC), seeking remains of a two-man crew missing since the Vietnam War.
The experience delivered him to history’s doorstep: “Being a Vietnam War buff, to actually read and see things, like walking to work on the Ho Chi Minh trail, that was huge,” McCoy said. “To go out there and just be part of the whole mission was just an honor in itself.”
His primary job was to provide medical support for locals and the JPAC personnel on McCoy’s team. Four teams of seven to 10 people each were in Laos at the time, each with separate recovery or investigative missions in the quest to continue to identify and repatriate the remains of 364 U.S. servicemembers still missing in action in Laos.
Tasked as an augmentee to fill a critically needed speciality, McCoy and other medical personnel helped save the life of a 2-year-old Lao boy who injured three fingers in a motorcycle wheel. Without antibiotics and surgery to shave off protruding bone, the boy likely would have died, McCoy said.
But like the rest of his team, McCoy also was expected to “get in the trenches and dig.”
And dig they did, unearthing a treasure trove of snaps, zippers, tiny bone fragments, aircraft pieces and other clues hiding in the mud for almost 40 years.
But the work began before shovels hit the dirt.
The daily commute from their “hotel” in the southeastern Lao village of Xepon was 15 minutes by helicopter and many more by foot. The four miles a day lugging a 60-pound pack cost McCoy 15 pounds.
“There were times we were walking through the trail and we were up to our knees in water,” he said.
The dig site was about 30 miles south of Xepon, flanked by a tiny village of bamboo huts on stilts and mushy rice paddies pockmarked with bomb craters, about 150 feet from the Ho Chi Minh trail, now a two-lane highway.
McCoy’s team knew exactly whose remains it was looking for, he said. The Defense Department won’t release the names out of respect for the families until an ID and formal notification are made, said JPAC spokeswoman Army Maj. Rumi Nielson-Green. But the story linked to the site dates to April 1968.
An A-26A Invader was in the midst of an airstrike when the plane crashed. A pilot and navigator were lost. Villagers who witnessed the fireball told JPAC investigators years later that the aircraft “exploded and burned for three days,” McCoy said.
Large aircraft parts were pilfered; “just by looking at the ground from the air, you couldn’t tell anything was there,” McCoy said.
But on the first day walking up to the site, “we found zippers just laying on the ground,” McCoy said. “We found a piece of survival vest. We found munitions that were blown off. Once you knew what your were looking for, it was easy to see that something had happened there.”
The most emotional finds were an almost-intact dog tag, its metal shiny and its owner’s name legible after a good scrub; half of a captain’s bars and wristband pieces. The most promising find for an ID was a tooth with a filling.
Nielson-Green said identification analysis can take weeks, months, even years. But a tooth, particularly with a restoration, is very promising, she said.