Face of Defense: Sergeant Volunteers for Recovery Effort
By Air Force Airman Ian Hoachlander
Special to American Forces Press Service
CHARLESTON AIR FORCE BASE, S.C., Aug. 21, 2009 A senior noncommissioned officer assigned here recently returned from a recovery mission to find the remains of an American pilot in Laos.
Air Force Master Sgt. Wesley Housel sifts through dirt while conducting a recovery mission in Houaphan province, Laos. Housel was part of a 10-member recovery team on a deployment to recover the remains of Americans lost during the Vietnam War. DoD photo
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
Air Force Master Sgt. Wesley Housel of the 437th Operations Support Squadron spent a 36-day deployment as a digger assigned to a 10-member Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command recovery team.
JPAC’s mission is to achieve the fullest possible accounting of all Americans missing as a result of the nation's past conflicts. Housel volunteered for his team’s mission to find and recover the remains of a lieutenant who was shot down in Laos during the Vietnam War.
JPAC teams include a forensic anthropologist, a field medic, an explosive ordnance disposal technician, a life-support investigator and a forensic photographer. A handful of Laotians helped the team members carry their equipment and built anything they needed, Housel said.
Recovery missions can last anywhere from 35 to 60 days, depending on location, terrain and the nature of the recovery, Housel explained. Crash sites are blocked off into 4-meter squares, and the soil is then sifted with a high-pressure hose and a quarter-inch screen. When JPAC members think they've found human remains or life-support equipment, the findings are sent back to the Central Identification Laboratory at Hickam Air Force Base, Hawaii, for confirmation.
The Laotian climate made the team’s work especially hard, Housel said. "After the rain rolled through, the humidity would kick in, and South Carolina would feel like a cold place compared to Laos," he said. But the rainy season was not the only hurdle the team had to overcome. The crash site was on steep terrain with thick vegetation.
Safety is paramount on the recovery missions, Housel said, and focusing on the mission’s importance helps in dealing with the difficult conditions. “You have to remember that you are there for a fallen comrade, because the conditions you operate in will destroy your morale very quickly if you do not maintain focus," he said. "The average incline at our crash site was probably about 30 [degrees]."
To get to the crash site, the team took a 25-minute helicopter ride every morning from their hotel into the jungle. The morning of July 27 provided a harrowing experience, however, as the team boarded an aircraft they typically did not use and took off from a new area.
"We started to lift off, and the pilot set [the helicopter] back down … and took right off again," Housel said, noting that witnesses said the helicopter slid back and the main rotor struck a tree behind it. When it struck the tree, the rotor stopped, and the helicopter spun and landed upside-down, witnesses said.
"The next thing I know, is I'm upside-down in my seat and [realized] that the importance of wearing a seat belt is true," Housel said. "I told my buddies to stay in their seatbelts -- not that politely -- because we didn't know if we were done rolling. We spun one and a half more times and rolled one and a half more times. The helicopter took off July 27 at 7:58 a.m. and we landed at 7:59 a.m. -- upside-down."
Everyone aboard the helicopter remained calm and exited the aircraft accordingly, Housel said. Then one simple word turned an orderly evacuation into everyone running for the hills.
"Each member on the helicopter was getting out cool and calm … until someone yelled 'Fire!' Then, it was every man … for themselves," he said with a smile.
(Air Force Airman Ian Hoachlander serves in the 437th Airlift Wing public affairs office.)