X Honors Historic Battlefield Pledge
By Linda D. Kozaryn
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, April 4, 2000 --
Even though it was hot, damp and dirty in the village of Don Phu, Vietnam, the American
military men and women who volunteered to go there said they loved it because they
were doing something worthwhile.
and Vietnamese workers excavate the crash site of a U.S. F-4B Phantom jet in rice
paddies about 20 miles southwest of Hanoi, Vietnam. Photo by Lt. David Gai, USN..
About 20 young service members
traveled to Southeast Asia to help honor America's pledge to bring home its fallen
soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines and Coast Guardsmen. Every bucket of mud that passed
hand to hand at the evacuation site, about 20 miles southwest of Hanoi, revealed a
bit more about the fate of a missing U.S. pilot.
Senior Airman Christopher M.
Rogers, 24, of the 324th Intelligence Squadron at Hickam Air Force Base, Hawaii, was
one of five linguists who volunteered for the recovery mission. The St. Louis native
said his father served two tours with the Army in Vietnam; it's not lost on him he
would not have been born had his father not survived the war.
"I know if my dad had been
killed over here, I'd want his remains to come home," the young airman said.
Senior Airman Brenda Smith,
21, of Houston, another 324th linguist, said her father served off the coast of Vietnam
with the Navy during the war. "I never got to talk to him much about it though," said
Smith, whose parents divorced when she was a toddler. "I just know that he was in
"I begged to do this," she
said. "I wanted to come so badly because I speak Vietnamese and it is a way for me
to improve my language skills and see the country I've been studying. The mission
itself is very noble. I think coming out here to try to find the remains of any of
our missing soldiers is awesome.
A self-proclaimed "basic city
girl," Smith admitted she'd never dug or carried buckets before. Although this kind
of physical labor is not her "bag," she said the work has been gratifying. "I already
plan on volunteering again," she said. "I want to come out here as many times as I
Tech. Sgt. Brian R. Trout,
36, also a 324th linguist, said he volunteered to practice his language skills and
for a chance to see Vietnam. "I've enjoyed every moment of this trip so far," said
the Sandusky, Ohio, native. "It's the camaraderie. People come together with different
backgrounds, histories, experiences in the military and we draw from that."
While the mission is "sad,"
Trout said, "I think that's what adds to it -- we know we're doing this for a good
cause. We're trying to bring closure to this. We know that it's very important for
the families back in the United States."
Many of those who volunteered
were not yet born when U.S. combat troops pulled out of Vietnam in 1973. Some, like
Rogers and Smith, have fathers who served there. Whether they have a personal connection
to the war or not, though, military service is the tie that binds this generation
to the one that served in the 1960s and 1970s.
"Part of the military psyche
is that you never leave your comrades on the battlefield," said Bob Jones, deputy
assistant defense secretary for prisoner of war/missing in action personnel affairs.
"That's ingrained in the fiber of everyone in uniform."
Jones, a former enlisted soldier
and Army officer who served two combat tours in Vietnam, heads the Pentagon's efforts
to recover service members missing from World War II, Korea, Vietnam and the Cold
War. Experts from the U.S. Army Central Identification Laboratory Hawaii and Joint
Task Force Full Accounting, also based in Hawaii, collect oral histories, do archival
searches, conduct interviews and site excavations around the world.
Once a potential site is identified,
recovery experts conduct joint field activities similar to that of an archeological
dig. "Literally, no stone goes unturned in trying to find information concerning a
missing American," Jones said.
Recruiting volunteers for these
difficult, often dangerous, recovery missions is not a problem. Military and civilian
personnel readily volunteer to perform arduous tasks all over the world at great risk
to themselves, Jones said.
"It's amazing to see the willingness
of folks to come out and try to assist in locating and identifying yesterday's heroes,"
Volunteers are exposed to unexploded
ordnance, bamboo vipers, malaria, and a host of other environmental hazards. At one
Southeast Asia site, Jones recalled, recovery team members traveled back and forth
by helicopter. When the chopper touched down, one skid rested on the narrow edge of
a jagged limestone cliff while the other still hovered in the air. The workers had
to rappel to the recovery site, Jones said.
Dennis R. Danielson (center) of the Army Central Identification Laboratory in Hawaii
supervises Vietnamese workers excavating the crash site of a U.S. F-4B Phantom jet
in rice paddies about 20 miles outside of Hanoi. Photo by Lt. David Gai, USN.
In mid-March 2000, Jones accompanied
Defense Secretary William S. Cohen during a visit to the relatively tame crash site
here. According to an eyewitness, a Navy F-4 Phantom crashed and exploded in the rice
paddies here in May 1967, killing both the pilot and a local resident. U.S. officials
believe the pilot may have been Navy Cmdr. Richard Rich of Stamford, Conn.
Rich is but one of the more
than 2,000 service members from the Vietnam War still unaccounted for. When U.S. combat
forces withdrew, 2,583 Americans were unaccounted for -- roughly 1,500 in Vietnam,
more than 500 in Laos and nearly 80 in Cambodia. Another 425 were lost off the coast
U.S. officials first launched
formal search and recovery operations in Vietnam and Laos in 1988 and in Cambodia
in 1991. As of April 1, the remains of 554 service members have been identified and
repatriated as a result of joint U.S. and host-nation investigation and recovery efforts.
Still, 2,029 remain lost -- but not forgotten.
For more than a month this
spring, a team of U.S. service members and Vietnamese workers excavated the Don Phu
site, known locally as Ha Tay. Dennis R. Danielson, an anthropologist from the Central
Identification Laboratory in Hawaii, slogged in the mud along with about 20 U.S. joint
task force volunteers and about 260 Vietnamese workers.
Danielson served a tour as
a Marine infantryman in Vietnam and that one combat tour was enough, he remarked.
But, he added, he hasn't hesitated to return to Southeast Asia as an anthropologist.
In fact, he has led excavations on more than 26 recovery missions to Vietnam and Laos.
"You couldn't ask for a better
job than to recover the remains of Americans that served here," he said.
The war took its toll on both
sides, Danielson noted. "The landowner's husband was with the North Vietnamese army,"
he said. "He's an MIA, too."
Staff Sgt. Sean A. Bendele of the Army Central Identification Laboratory in Hawaii,
looks over the site where about 260 Vietnamese workers and 20 members of a U.S. recovery
team are excavating the crash site of a U.S. F-4B Phantom jet. As assistant recovery
team leader, Bendele led the workers' efforts during the recovery effort in March
2000. Photo by Linda D. Kozaryn.
Army Staff Sgt. Sean A. Bendele,
a veteran of 12 such joint field activities in Southeast Asia, also said he values
the opportunity to honor the nation's pledge. The Victorville, Calif., native enlisted
as a mortuary affairs specialist more than 15 years ago because he felt compelled
to join the search for the nation's MIAs.
"It's just something I want
to do," said Bendele, who's also assigned to Central Identification Laboratory. "I
want to make sure these guys come home. They've been over here too long. It's time
to bring them home."
As the recovery team's assistant
leader, Bendele led the Vietnamese workers as they hauled buckets of mud from the
crater and poured it into quarter-inch mesh screens. The team then used water hoses
to wash away the dirt and clay, leaving small pieces of aircraft wreckage on the screens.
Anything larger would have been scavenged over the years, said Army Maj. Mike Higginbotham,
recovery team leader.
Higginbotham, 45, of Huntington
Beach, Calif., previously worked at three recovery sites in Laos. This was his first
mission in Vietnam. He said earlier investigations at the Ha Tay site in 1995 and
1996 had uncovered no leads. "It was '97 before we got enough leads to know where
to start to dig," he said.
Midway through the excavation,
Higginbotham's team had recovered several sacks of metal pieces, cable and wire. He
said team specialists seek anything that will identify the aircraft -- a data plate,
uniform buttons, portions of a parachute. They also aim to determine whether anyone
was in the aircraft at the time of the crash.
In this case, Higgenbotham
said, the team found some bones that could prove to be human remains. "We never know
if what we've found is human remains until we get it back to the Central Identification
Laboratory at Hickam Air Force Base, Hawaii, and our experts there make a determination."
Air Force Master Sgt. Mark
Mitchell of Dangerfield, Texas, told site visitors he's taken part in 10 investigations
and this was his 16th joint field activity. The Ha Tay site, he said, was one of the
worst because of the weather and the size of the wreckage. "Most of the sites I've
worked on have been dry sites where you didn't have to deal with the water or the
cold," he said.
Mitchell said recovery missions
have been his most rewarding jobs during his 20-year military career. "I feel like
it's a joint task force, and we're just trying to bring one of our team members home,"
he said. "I'd want the same if I went down or years later my son had to go."
Air Force Master Sgt. Michael
B. Reilly is an explosive ordnance disposal technician assigned to the 35th Civil
Engineering Squadron, Misawa Air Base, Japan. He's at the Ha Tay site because he wanted
to learn what's required of EOD experts on these types of missions.
"Our unit gets tasked to provide
support, and they asked for volunteers," he said. "I wanted to see where I send my
personnel. It's always nice for the bosses to know what they're getting their personnel
into." Luckily, Reilly said, the excavation so far had not required his particular
"There are other sites where
they have found a lot of cluster munitions," he said. "That's when the sites really
Army Spc. Robert L. Gordon,
24, of Houston is a personnel administration clerk assigned to the 706th EOD Detachment
at Schofield Barracks, Hawaii. The mission offered a chance to get out of the office,
see Vietnam, "plus get to do something honorable for our country,î he said.
Spc. Robert L. Gordon, 24, from Houston, Texas, trudges through ankle-deep mud at
the site of recovery operations outside Hanoi, Vietnam. Gordon, a personnel administration
clerk assigned to the 706th EOD Detachment at Scofield Barracks, Hawaii, volunteered
to join Joint Task Force Full Accounting to help in determining the fate of an American
pilot missing from the Vietnam War. Photo by Linda D. Kozaryn.
"When I found out what the
mission was and what it was about, it became kind of personal because if I had someone
who was missing in action like that, I would like to have closure for my family,"
Word of mouth led Chief Petty
Officer James M. Vukovich, 36, to the site. The Navy corpsman from Waukesha, Wis.,
is assigned to the 1st Marine Division at Camp Pendleton, Calif. He said his unit
wasnít tasked to provide anyone, but other corpsmen had volunteered and he decided
to follow suit.
"It's a once-in-a-lifetime
experience," Vukovich said. "After being out here in these conditions for almost a
month, we've potentially found some things and that kind of makes it worthwhile. Do
it again? Oh yeah, definitely."
Air Force Tech. Sgt. Luis E.
Valladares, 40, from the 18th Medical Group at Kadena Air Base, Okinawa, Japan, was
one of two medics on the recovery team. The San Antonio native was a teen-ager during
the Vietnam War.
"I can relate to what we're
doing here," Valladares said. "I remember some things from TV. During my first years
in service, I also met several people who served in Vietnam. I probably am the link
between that generation and the new generation of military members."
The 14-year Air Force veteran
said this was his second recovery mission in Vietnam, and he plans to volunteer for
"I've enjoyed it tremendously,
coming here and doing this kind of job," he said. "It is an opportunity to practice
what I was trained for. Back on base is a good thing too, but this has a special meaning.
These people gave their lives for our country. The least we can do is to bring them