NEWS | Sept. 10, 2020

Searching for the Missing

Staff Sgt. Nicholas Crisp, 36th Wing Public Affairs

ANDERSEN AIR FORCE BASE, Guam -- She dug through tons of dirt, mud, clay and scorpions in her search for two missing pilots. From May 25 through June 13, 2019, U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Dotey Lynn, commander’s support staff for the 36th Wing Comptroller Squadron and a group of multi-branched volunteers were going to Laos to excavate an F-4 aircraft crash site from the Vietnam War.

"When the email came in that the Defense POW/MIA Prisoner of War and Missing in Action Accounting Agency were looking for volunteers to search for missing POW’s and MIA’s from the Vietnam War I didn’t think twice about it," said Lynn. "I knew this would be a life changing experience for everyone involved."

Before leaving for the Lao People’s Democratic Republic, Lynn's team of volunteers met at the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency's (DAAA) headquarters in Hawaii for processing and training. They learned how to build sifting stations out of nearby bamboo, wet stations for when the inevitable rains came, and basic medical care. Their dig site was in the remote Savannakhét province, in the Vilabouli District, found near Ban Kok Mak Village, almost an hour away from their living quarters.
"The first day of work we loaded up in the back of a truck and drove 40 minutes to our site where we would be digging every day," said Lynn. "On the way there, you would see families out on hillsides searching for vegetables, and rice as well as families taking their baths in the lakes."

There were two teams that would dig at sites right next to each other. The teams were composed of 30 Americans, 200 Lao workers, and 2 translators. The Loa workers were locals who slept on site and were paid five dollars per day per family.

"At first it seemed almost impossible to converse with the Lao workers because we couldn’t understand them, and they couldn’t understand us," said Lynn. "We all made close relationships with the locals, broke down barriers, and even developed our own form of communication with each other. It makes me realize how important host nation relationships are."

The first day's work consisted of clearing trees and bushes, as well as digging a huge hole which would be their bathroom while working. The U.S. team members would dig for six hours in one hour shifts. Every shovel of dirt was placed into buckets, passed down a bucket line formed by the sometimes 50 or more Lao workers. The buckets would go to screening stations where one American and one Lao worker would sift through all the dirt, rocks, and insects searching for life support equipment.

Life support equipment (LSE) includes survival items carried by the aircrew members, helmets and flight suits. LSE directly correlates and helps in confirming the identity of missing service members.

"Everyone, every day would be so excited when someone would find pieces of metal from the aircraft or a piece of equipment that crewmember might have been wearing," said Lynn.

Excitement was tempered, however. Daily discoveries of bones would turn out to belong to animals, rain would wash away the dig site and there were so many unexploded ordnances (UXO) it would halt the dig for hours every day. One UXO discovered weighed 500 pounds and took on site explosive ordnance disposal technicians 24 hours to clear the site.

"The most exciting thing my team found was a large piece of what we assume to be an aircrew members helmet," said Lynn. "The team next to us found a dog tag and eight teeth. This was huge in bringing home the remains to their family and ensuring it was the person DPAA had researched."

Human remains are transferred to DPAA’s headquarters to go through the identification process. Once confirmed, the remains are given a proper burial, with honors, with their family.

When the teams arrived back in the Lao capital, all service members wore their dress uniforms and contributed to the repatriation ceremony, loading the casket with remnants within, and flag on top, onto the C-17 Globemaster III. There was a moment of silence for the service member’s who were finally returning home after 56 years.

"Once completed the teams returned to Hawaii. The last day the archeologists took us on a tour of the DPAA building," said Lynn "It was like nothing I have ever seen. They had so many human remains that they were researching from World War II, Korean War, Vietnam War and the Cold War."

Clear cases line the entry hall, displaying recovered equipment as it was found and next to it, recreations of how the equipment would have looked in its prime. In the back of the facility, 75 chrome tabletops supported skeletons in various states of completion. These skeletons were recently returned to the U.S. from Democratic People's Republic of Korea.

"I would volunteer every time DPAA went out, if I were able, said Lynn. "If you ever have the opportunity, I encourage you to take it. DPAA is always looking for volunteers and you may also have the chance to bring a service member back home to their families."

To date, there are over 81,000 service members still missing from past conflicts. DPAA’s mission is to provide the fullest possible accounting of missing personnel to their families and the nation, a mission that is heavily dependent on augmentees.