TRAVIS AIR FORCE BASE, Calif., February 5, 2016 —
When Air Force Tech. Sgt. Robin Bailon enlisted 16 years ago, she didn't expect her career to take her to Vietnam as a life science investigator.
But Bailon, an aircrew flight equipment specialist by trade, had the opportunity to venture far outside the scope of her traditional duties, recently returning from a trip working for the Defense Prisoner of War/Missing in Action Accounting Agency in Vietnam.
There, she searched for the remains of fallen service members and aircraft parts from a helicopter crash during the Vietnam War. With headquarters in Washington and an operational office in Hawaii, the DPAA is responsible for both the recovery and accounting of missing service members from past conflicts.
Seizing an Opportunity
When the message came down from Air Mobility Command that DPAA was looking for a team member, Bailon said, she was excited to apply, having become interested in the program when she heard about it from co-workers who served on previous DPAA teams.
Her work with aircrew flight equipment opened the door for her to go to life science equipment investigation training, where she further developed her skills to contribute to the effort of Recovery Team 5, the DPAA team to which she was assigned.
In 2015, RT-5 cleared and began excavating the area around a crash site that the agency identified in 2007. Bailon worked closely with a civilian forensic anthropologist, a photographer, an explosive ordinance specialist and a Vietnamese linguist to search for and recover aircraft pieces.
Bailon's hard work was noticed by both her teammates and her supervisor, Army Capt. Jonathan Duncan, a 121st Joint Field Activity DPAA recovery team leader.
"Tech. Sergeant Bailon was instrumental in helping our team identify wreckage associated with the crash, as she was the only subject-matter expert on the team who could provide authoritative positive identification of aircraft pieces and parts,” Duncan said. "Her expertise was crucial in allowing us to fulfill our mission."
Duncan led 15 U.S. personnel on the mission, directing their work and coordinating with the Vietnamese Office for Seeking Missing Persons.
Bailon said the team faced many challenges during the 21 days that RT-5 spent in Vietnam. The remote and austere conditions at the site created logistical, manpower and life-support problems that the team was able to overcome. The mountainous terrain was cold and rainy, which made the job more difficult. The ground was muddy, and insects also created challenges for the team, she added, but she refused to let the poor conditions get her down.
"I remember Tech. Sergeant Bailon was always willing to pitch in and do more than her fair share of the dirtiest, most grueling work we had to do," Duncan said. "She hauled buckets up and down steep muddy slopes, shoveled out mud from the holes we excavated, and stood in dirt, mud and water, for up to eight hours for each of those days. She did all of those things happily despite knowing that she would have no chance to change into clean or dry clothes, or take a warm shower, until we got off the mountain and went back to town."
A positive attitude was paramount to the team's success, the team leader added.
"Bailon's willingness to support the team was a significant boost to overall team morale" he said. "She consistently produced excellent work despite a lack of life-support conveniences that are typically taken for granted in daily life, like running water, flushing toilets, reliable showers or warm water for bathing."
The team’s efforts bore fruit despite the challenges. On Dec. 14, four boxes of remains believed to be those of U.S. service members killed in action during the Vietnam War were delivered to DPAA at a repatriation ceremony held in Hanoi, Vietnam.
A Learning Experience
During her time in Vietnam, Bailon said, she worked with members from each branch of service, adding that she enjoyed working with them and learning about their similarities and differences. She also embraced the cultural aspects of the trip.
"I not only enjoyed the joint mission, but I also enjoyed working hand in hand with the Vietnamese," she said. "It was interesting. A lot of them don't really speak or understand English, so trying to communicate was challenging, but it was fun experiencing their culture."
Bailon said she will cherish the camaraderie shared not only with the joint forces on the team, but also with the Vietnamese military.
On Thanksgiving Day, Bailon's Vietnamese counterparts prepared a pig for the DPAA team. The DPAA members prepared a Thanksgiving meal to share American culture with the Vietnamese as they celebrated what they were thankful for.
"What better time to be on this mission than just after Veterans Day," Bailon said.