Select Team of Experts Working to Bring MIA Troops Home
By Kathleen T. Rhem
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, June 6, 2006 Aging witnesses and more urban areas are making it harder to find remains or evidence of missing American servicemembers in Vietnam, but a select group of experts here works year-round to fulfill the U.S. military's pledge to leave no man behind.
A team from the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command along with several locally hired Vietnamese workers clean up a recovery site to prepare it to be photographed in 2004. The site is located in Quang Nam province, Vietnam. Photo by Sgt. Douglas Stubblefield, USMC
(Click photo for screen-resolution image)
The seven-member team -- four servicemembers and three federal employees -- of Detachment 2, Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command, has spent the past 15 years talking to witnesses, reviewing historical documentation and digging in muck in pursuit of a mission sacred to U.S. military members.
"Most Americans really don't have an idea that this is happening," Marine Maj. Jay Rutter, the detachment's deputy commander and operations officer, said yesterday. Rutter briefed media traveling with Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld on an official visit to Vietnam, his first as secretary of defense.
The headquarters of the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command is at Hickam Air Force Base, Hawaii. The unit works on many fronts to provide the fullest possible accounting of U.S. servicemembers missing from conflicts throughout history. Because Vietnam is the most recent conflict with large numbers of missing in action, most of the organization's successes happen here, Rutter said.
Several factors contribute to the JPAC's successes in Vietnam -- foremost among them is the team's close working relationship with the Vietnamese government. Detachment 2 has been in Vietnam since 1991, four years before normalized relations between the country and the United States. "We feel our history played a big role in helping relations (between the two countries) to the point where they are today," Rutter said.
"We couldn't do this without the cooperation of the Vietnamese," he said. "When I got here (two years ago), I was surprised at how much the cooperation is and what level they give us."
Still, he added, "we always want them to give us more -- more access to some of their archives, more access to some of the restricted sites."
Rumsfeld visited and had lunch with the unit's team members yesterday during his brief stay here. He also discussed the POW/MIA issue with national leaders.
"The response we got from the government here ... and our appreciation for their support is real and continuing," the secretary said during an evening news conference. "We still have work to do, and, as we all agree, we do not want to forget the importance of this.
"I was pleased to be there and to see the positive response of the government of Vietnam and to know of the good close relationship between our embassy and the folks we have working on (the POW/MIA issue)," Rumsfeld added.
Interagency cooperation among U.S. entities here is also vital to the team's success. "We don't have blinders on," Rutter said. "We have to reach out and touch a lot of people in a lot of different ways."
Some 1,805 U.S. military members are still officially missing in Southeast Asia; the vast majority -- 1,380 -- are believed to be in Vietnam. Fifty-four went missing in or over Cambodia; 365 in Laos; and seven in China. JPAC's Detachment 1 is in Bangkok, Thailand, and is responsible for operations in Thailand and Cambodia. Detachment 3 is in Vientiane, Laos.
The small Detachment 2 team has irons in many fires throughout Vietnam. The team currently is tracking 67 unique sites that are approved for "digs," high-tech archaeological missions conducted by "Joint Field Activities" using multifaceted experts and up to 100 local workers.
The team maintains a presence here and conducts active investigations throughout the year. Several times per year they organize Joint Field Activity missions. These ramped-up teams come here on temporary duty for 33 days, conduct intensive investigations of individual sites, and do the actual searching for remains.
For the past several years, four such missions have been conducted per year. In 2007, three missions are scheduled, but are increased to 45 days each. "We're becoming more efficient," Rutter said.
Detachment 2 gets leads from archives that become available from the Vietnamese government, and witnesses who come forward with evidence they have found or remember from the period the servicemembers went missing. The team also gets leads from U.S. and Vietnamese veterans groups, Rutter said.
"Sometimes wreckage turns up when farmers are working fields," said William "Buddy" Newell, a former airman who's now a civilian employee permanently assigned to the team as a linguist. "Sometimes villagers recall seeing a parachute or burying remains."
No digs are scheduled unless the experts are fairly certain they will find remains or a crash site. Digs are expensive, disruptive, labor-intensive prospects, Rutter said. But careful initial work has led to a high success rate for actual digs.
A typical dig might include damming off and draining a rice paddy, then sectioning it off and using screen frames to wash away the mud and examine debris that's left behind, Rutter explained. He said local-national workers are hired to do much of the heavy labor, but an American expert examines debris left behind in every screen before it's declared rubbish.
The work often entails wading in mud and muck looking for even the smallest fragments of human remains or evidence of crash sites. "It is not fun duty; they don't come over here and have liberty," Rutter said. "They're out in the jungle, in the muck digging."
Team members look for physical evidence, often in the form of bone fragments and mechanical parts. An expert on Vietnam-era military equipment and a doctor of anthropology are part of every team that conducts a dig.
When human remains are found, they are placed in a transfer case that's covered with an American flag and handled from then on with all the honor and dignity due a fallen American servicemember. Honor ceremonies are conducted here and when the remains are repatriated to the United States.
An explosive ordnance disposal expert also accompanies each team. If unexploded ordnance is found, the U.S. EOD expert secures the site; then a Vietnamese team detonates or disposes of the ordnance. Rutter said the Vietnamese use these missions as training for their EOD forces.
After a site is exploited, the team compensates local individuals for rice that's lost from the digging and for the cost of returning the field to its original condition.
Despite successes -- U.S. experts have found and identified remains of more than 600 servicemembers since 1975 -- several factors in Vietnam are making the mission more difficult and adding a renewed sense of urgency recently, Newell said. Witnesses to events in the 1960s and '70s are aging, with their memories becoming cloudy, and also are dying.
"The age of witnesses is a huge issue that we have," Newell said. "We've got to go do these interviews now."
Urbanization in Vietnam is another important factor. It's "not realistic" to search for human remains after a shopping mall or hotel has been built over a crash site, Rutter said.
Still, the team keeps forging ahead by relying on the elements of the unit's motto: "Presence, persistence and patience."
"If you don't have these three things, you're not going to get things done," Rutter said.