Hill reservist helps excavate Vietnam-era plane crash site

HILL AIR FORCE BASE — Eric Eberhard knows there are inherent risks that come with serving his country, especially in his career field.

But thoughts of those risks are usually accompanied by a feeling of solace — comfort the 37-year-old Explosive Ordnance Disposal specialist says comes from a faith that his country will never leave him behind.

Eberhard, a senior master sergeant with Hill Air Force Base’s 419th Fighter Wing, recently returned from a two-month deployment in Laos with the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency. The DPAA is tasked by the Department of Defense to recover missing Americans who are listed as prisoners of war or missing in action from all past conflicts in which the United States has participated. The DPAA lists the number of unaccounted for Americans at more than 83,000.

In Laos, Eberhard and a team of about 15 other Americans conducted day-to-day operations to research, identify and recover soldiers who were never brought home following the Vietnam conflict. 

“There were a lot of planes that were shot over Vietnam, but crash-landed in surrounding areas,” Eberhard said.

The team was made up of personnel with varying career and skill sets, each providing their own expertise to what Eberhard says is a complex and arduous process.

“It’s one of those things that really does require a complete team effort,” he said. “Every individual involved contributes something unique, and if you take one piece away, the entire mission falls apart.”

According to a DPAA fact sheet, teams use standard field archaeology methods when excavating recovery sites and are directed by an on-site anthropologist, who “directs the excavation much like a detective oversees a crime scene.”

Each mission the DPAA conducts is different, but certain processes are common to each recovery. A typical recovery mission lasts 35 to 60 days, depending on locations and recovery methods needed. Sites range in size from a few meters to areas bigger than a football field.

When recovery teams descend on a site, the team builds a grid system that divides the site into sections. Each section is excavated one piece at a time and every particle of soil is screened for potential remains, life support equipment or other material evidence. After initial on-site analyses, any pertinent material is taken to a DOD forensic lab.

With his EOD background, Eberhard’s job in Laos was to identify and eliminate any explosive materials.

“(Crashed) aircraft may still have munitions, bombs, all kinds of different explosive hazards,” he said. “So it was my job to go in and identify and remove any of those hazards.”

Though the Vietnam conflict ended more than 40 years ago, Eberhard said some sites could still feature live booby traps or unexploded land mines.

Eberhard also participated in more direct recovery procedures, using minesweeping techniques to identify metal signatures, saying, “When we found metal, that would indicate that there could also be bone.”

During the mission, Eberhard and crew interacted daily with Laotians. The Defense Department paid locals to help shuttle buckets of dirt associated with excavation sites.

“That was one of the unexpected joys of the deployment, being able to work with the local villagers,” he said. “I tied some balloon animals for some of the kids, and they really enjoyed it. They’ve probably never seen anything like that before.”

Eberhard said he couldn’t discuss whether his team found any human remains or made any recoveries substantial enough to identify a lost soldier. He said that information is considered classified until a thorough review process is completed and living family members are informed. He did say the crew found some .38-caliber and .20mm ammunition. 

Eberhard’s mission overlapped with Memorial Day, something that caused him to reflect on his own mortality. The reservist has served for more than a decade in both the Air Force and Marines and has deployed to both Iraq and Afghanistan.

“You remember all of those who died while serving their country and you realize as a service member, the possibility exists that you could someday be placed in harm’s way,” he said. “So to know that come hell or high water, your country will do everything they can to bring you back. That’s just very comforting.”

According to the DPAA, there are 14 Utah soldiers who fought in Vietnam who have yet to be accounted for. The list includes Ogden resident John Michael Christensen and Layton resident John Cooley Ellison.

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