YOKOTA AIR BASE, Japan — Drenched in sweat from the hot, humid Vietnam weather, our shovels breached the earth’s surface excavating the ground and placing it into buckets to be screened as we searched for one of our own.
Most people are familiar with Arlington National Cemetery and its impressive landscape which serves to honor those who served our nation as a final resting place.
Many though, are unaware of how those who die during a conflict on foreign soil are able to return home.
Military personnel with the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency travel to various conflict regions throughout the world to locate and identify missing service members in order to bring them home and provide them a proper burial.
The mission of DPAA is to provide the fullest possible accounting for missing personnel to their families and the nation.
My job as a photographer afforded me the opportunity to travel with DPAA to document the work being done to help find a missing soldier.
A few days after arriving in Vietnam, I got my first view of the insect and leech infested mountain side of where I would be working for the next five weeks. It was split into two sections; the top half was almost at a 40-degree angle, and the bottom half was flat with numerous trees throughout.
Leeches and the incessantly humid weather made it difficult, at times, to focus solely on my job. Thankfully, Vietnamese locals were there to aid in the process. The support from locals is vital to the success of many of these recoveries.
Our work began with the setup of screening stations to separate dirt from possible aircraft parts, bones and other clues that would lead us to the missing member, in this case a soldier. Once completed, our anthropologist set up areas for us to excavate the dirt.
Multiple personnel were digging at any given moment with a line of people transporting buckets of dirt to the screening stations to sift through. Upon finding anything that could be aircraft parts or bones, we placed them in buckets to be looked at to ensure we were searching in the right area.
I photographed the overall area, each section we dug, people digging, personnel sorting through the dirt, aircraft parts we found, and any other found evidentiary parts while digging and sorting through dirt myself. I documented everything.
Throughout the course of our mission, I along with the other service members, were able to interact with local workers. The language barrier made it difficult for us to properly communicate with each other, but we were able to build a bond with the Vietnamese people we worked with.
We were able to excavate 9,728 cubic meters of earth, unearthing a multitude of aircraft wreckage and possible material evidence that could lead us closer to finding our long lost service member.
Killed in 1968 during the Vietnam War, the missing soldier was shot down in the helicopter he was piloting. Unfortunately, three other service members on board lost their lives that same day, however, they were recovered and identified after the crash.
The experience provided me with some insight of what he and those who served alongside him endured during the war 50 years ago.
Searching for a fallen service member was a very humbling experience and I hope that our work will make it easier for the next team to bring him home to his family and his final resting place, wherever that may be.