The sweat drenched our clothes from the hot, humid Vietnamese 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.
When U.S. service members die, one of the more common places people relate it to is the Arlington Cemetery. What people may not think about is, ‘what happens to those who die during a conflict and are unable to return home?’ Those service members will typically be buried where they die or at a grave site within the ‘host’ country.
I had been chosen to work with the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency as a photographer to document our work and take the necessary pictures throughout the mission to help the anthropologist complete his job.
June 3, 2017 - Members of the 17-3VM Recovery Team, deployed by Defense POW/MIA Accountability Agency (DPAA), excavate soil from a unit as part of a recovery mission in Phuoc Son providence, Vietnam. Since 1973, the remains of more than 1,000 Americans killed in the Vietnam War have been identified and returned to their families for a proper burial with full military honors. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. David Owsianka)
DPAA members work towards providing the fullest possible accountability for our missing service members to their families and the nation.
In order to meet their goal of finding service members who died in various conflicts we (the United States) have been involved throughout the world, teams of military personnel will travel to various locations within the conflict regions to locate and identify the personnel to give them a proper burial.
A few days after arriving in Vietnam, I got my first view of the insect and leach infested mountain side of where I would be working for the next five weeks. It was split into two sections; the top half was on almost at a 40 degree angle, and the bottom half was flat with numerous trees throughout.
June 6, 2017 - U.S. service members work alongside Vietnamese personnel to place sandbags on the edge of a tarp to keep the soil inside of excavated units dry in Phuoc Son providence, Vietnam, June 6, 2016. The mission of DPAA is to provide the fullest possible accounting for our missing personnel to their families and their nation. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. David Owsianka)
The leaches and weather made it difficult, at times, to focus solely on my job. Luckily, we had some Vietnamese locals to help us with the process.
We began our work by setting up our screening stations to separate the dirt from possible aircraft parts, bones, and other clues that would lead us to the soldier. Once completed, our anthropologist set up the areas for us to excavate the dirt.
We had multiple personnel digging at any given moment with a line of people transporting buckets of dirt to the screening stations to look through it. Upon finding anything that could be aircraft parts or bones we would place them in buckets to be looked at to ensure we were searching in the right direction.
May 21, 2017 - U.S. service members work alongside Vietnamese personnel to screen excavated soil as they search for a fallen service member from the Vietnam War in Phuoc Son providence, Vietnam . The mission of DPAA is to provide the fullest possible accounting for our missing personnel to their families and their nation. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. David Owsianka)
I took pictures of 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.
Throughout the course of our mission, I along with the other service members were able to interact with the local workers. Even though the language barrier made it difficult for us to properly communicate with each other, we still were able to build a bond with the Vietnamese people we worked with.
As we closed the last unit of dirt we searched through, we excavated 9,728 cubic meters of earth where we discovered a multitude of aircraft wreckage and possible material evidence that led us closer to finding our long lost service member.
The soldier we hoped to bring home died in 1968 during the Vietnam War as the helicopter he flew on was shot down causing it to crash. ‘This unfortunately led to those on board to lose their lives.’ The three other U.S. service members on board were recovered, identified after the crash, and their bodies were returned home.
May 24, 2017 - U.S. Army Sgt. Christopher Ausborn, a recovery non-commissioned officer with the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA) screens soil for possible evidence during a DPAA mission to recover fallen service members from the Vietnam War in Khammouan Province, Laos. The mission of DPAA is to provide the fullest possible accounting for our missing personnel to their families and to the nation. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by MCIPAC Combat Camera Lance Cpl. Brooke Deiters)
It was a very humbling experience as I helped search for a fallen service member on the Vietnam mountain side and I hope the work we did will help the next team find him. It also gave me an insight of what he and those who served alongside him endured during the war 50 years ago.
By U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. David Owsianka
Provided through DVIDS
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