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Digging For Answers
by U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Jette Carr
December 28, 2016

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Colleen Shine was 8 years old when her father, an Air Force fighter pilot, was listed as missing in action during the Vietnam War.

For the next 24 years, Colleen waited for answers. Was he still out there and trying to get home, or had he died when his plane went down? Was he being held as a prisoner of war? After he was listed MIA, the family received 14 different reports about Lt. Col. Anthony Shine: some had pictures of remains reputed to be his, and some were live sightings. These reports continued into the mid-1990s, and the family faced each lead while trying to track down the truth.

“Uncertainty is the crux of the POW/MIA issue,” Colleen said. “When my dad's younger brother, an Army first lieutenant, fresh from West Point, was killed in action in Vietnam in 1970, his wife knew at that point she was a widow. She had a truth to face and move forward from. It was hard for everyone in our family, but it was finality, and something you could face and begin to build your life from … there's a peace of heart and mind that comes with knowing the fate of a loved one.”

As an adult, Colleen made a trip to Vietnam in the ‘90s that would answer many of her questions. While traveling with a guide to check out a site, she saw the wreckage of her father's plane -- an A-7D Corsair II -- and was given a flight helmet with his name scribed inside. Her finds eventually led to the discovery of her father's remains.

After she had found evidence of her father that investigators missed, she took to Capitol Hill, calling for higher government accountability in finding POW/MIA service members and to remind officials of the promise to leave no man behind.

That promise, made to U.S. military men and women, is one the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency holds in high regard. It is an agency created by the Department of Defense in January 2015, which combined the former Defense Prisoner of War Missing Personnel Office, the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command, and the Life Sciences Equipment Laboratory into one organization to “more effectively increase the number of missing service personnel accounted for from past conflicts and ensure timely and accurate information is communicated to their families.”

Many different organizations and personnel within DPAA are involved in the effort to bring missing veterans home to their families. Denise To, a supervisory forensic anthropologist, performs the recovery analysis and identification of human skeletal remains at the DPAA Hawaii Laboratory. As a scientist, To is not above getting her feet dirty and has also joined previous search teams in Vietnam.

The environment in Vietnam is full of variety. It can be cold, but more often than not, it is hot and humid. Also, unlike a common misperception, the country isn't just composed of small villages scattered in the jungle; the economy is quickly expanding into cities with large high-rise hotels and bustling enterprise. However, most of the DPAA's work isn't done near a nice, comfortable air-conditioned hotel.

“The easier sites to process have already been done, so the only ones left now are the ones that are extremely difficult because of logistics and topography,” To said, describing digging under a thick triple canopy or on the side of a remote mountain. “It's very physical labor. It's back-breaking, and it's done a lot of times in direct sunlight in austere environments, on a 60-degree side of the slope where you are harnessed in like a billy goat wearing repelling equipment, and (you're) trying to do science at the same time.”

The techniques and procedures used on DPAA sites are generally in line with standard archeological methods, such as those used on the pyramids in Egypt or Mexico, the scientist added.

“The way we would excavate a thousand-year-old royal tomb is the same way that we excavate our sites out here,” she said. “The tools are slightly different. We may expedite it a little bit. We may use heavy equipment and shovels because we are processing them in the same way, but we are trying to answer different questions.”

Over time, nature has a tendency to reclaim the burial or crash sites, and it's further expedited by Vietnam's highly acidic soil, which can erode remains entirely. By the time the pieces of aircraft, gear, and bone fragments make their way into the labs for analysis, they can be difficult to identify.

At the Central Identification Laboratory, forensic anthropologists do what they can to glean answers from the bones found on site. They primarily use mitochondrial DNA to help identify individual service members. They also use other lines of evidence, such as historical data, clavicular data, dental records, material evidence and archeological data.

“Imagine you are putting a puzzle together,” To said. “It's three dimensions, someone has taken half the pieces away, someone's put new pieces that doesn't even belong to the puzzle, and you don't have the box top to see what the puzzle is going to look like, and you're blindfolded with one hand tied behind your back. That's how the puzzle is for us … When cases get solved, and we're able to identify individuals, it's because we have been able to put enough pieces together to make a positive identification.”

The work that goes into bringing a missing service member home and definitively identifying them is tremendous, but, ultimately, it's all worth it. Johnie Webb, the DPAA deputy director of external communications, is reminded of the organization's value each time a family is reunited with their missing loved one.

In November, he met with the wife and daughter of an NCO, who was recently recovered and identified. The pair had traveled to Hawaii to escort him home to be laid to rest. Before going into the room where her father's remains laid, the younger woman stopped to collect herself saying, “I need a moment because I'm going to meet my father for the first time.” At the time her father deployed and went missing, her mother had been pregnant – she had never had the chance to know him.

This moment left an impression on Webb.

“That's what this is all about; it's hard to put in words how you feel at that point, but you know it's a very special occasion,” he said. “There are still a lot of young men out there that we haven't found yet, and I'm hoping there can be many more days like today, where we can return that husband, that father, that brother.”

The Vietnam POW/MIA recovery mission has additional meaning for Webb because he is also a veteran who served during that war. He can recall what it was like for those at home waiting on their loved ones who were fighting abroad.

“The Vietnam War was played out on the news every day — the families sitting there watching the evening news, hoping to get a tidbit of information, hoping to get a glimpse of what might be happening,” Webb said. “Then, when the POWs returned, everybody was watching to see if they might see their loved one step off that plane.”

After the Paris Peace Accords were signed in 1973, 591 POWs who had been captured during the war in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia were returned, according to the DPAA; however, the number of veterans who were still unaccounted for quadrupled that count. It wasn't until over a decade had passed that the U.S. was able to successfully perform the first humanitarian mission to bring any of the remaining lost service members home from Vietnam.

In 1985, after many persistent requests, a U.S. team was granted access into Vietnam to recover a B-52 Stratofortress crew. They had crashed nearly 10 miles outside of Hanoi during the war.

“The Vietnamese had come in after the crash and filled in the crater, which they said was 7 meters deep,” Webb said. “So, we got permission to go in, realizing that if there were 7 meters of top fill that had been placed in that crater, we were going to have a lot of work. So we decided to lease a back-hoe here from Hawaii, fly it into Vietnam on a C-141, and actually drive it out to the crash site, which we did.”

Once they got to the crash site, the recovery team realized that houses had been built over the area. The team purchased the homes so they could be deconstructed and excavation could begin. The effort kept the crew in Vietnam over the Thanksgiving holiday, but their work paid off sooner than they had expected. After 22 feet of dirt had been removed, they recovered one engine, landing gear, and began to find some remains.

“So, the first excavation in Vietnam, I can remember being there on the ground getting messages from the folks in Washington saying, ‘Don't come back until you find the remains of those two crew members.'” Webb said.

“In the end, we were successful,” he added. “What really makes it worthwhile is we brought back two of our comrades who gave their lives during the war.”

The process has come a long way since then – it is now a team effort between the U.S. and Vietnam. Over the past 30 years, relations have improved between the two countries, and it all began with the POW/MIA issue.

“They call it ‘the bridge to normalized relationships,'” said Ronald Ward, a DPAA casualty resolution specialist with Detachment 2 in Hanoi. “The bilateral relationship between the U.S. and the Socialist Republic of Vietnam comprises of many things: economic trade, military to military (relations are) even growing, but it all started with this. This was the very first thing. This office was here before the embassy.”

The mission was something the Vietnamese found they could empathize with because they had thousands of missing soldiers from the war as well.

“This is something that has helped us get past that hate because we were able to say, “OK, this is a mother – a Vietnamese mother, an American mother – this is a missing son, and we just focused on that,” Ward said. “Because when you just think about things in human terms, you can get past the animosities of the past.”

The U.S. depends on the Vietnamese government, as the host nation, to provide not only access, but also information to lead search teams to viable locations where fallen service members may be found. Knowledge gained from speaking with Vietnamese veterans is key, according to Ward.

“(They are) very important in helping us find these sites because they're witnesses,” Ward said. “In the beginning, they were a little more reluctant. Their veterans' organizations were more reluctant. Today, they are very willing and cooperative partners in helping us find our unaccounted for Americans from the Vietnam War. It has been a long road to get from animosity to close cooperation, but that's where we are today.”

In search of any information that can drive a recovery effort forward, Ward and his fellow researchers investigate leads from many sources. In addition to speaking with witnesses, they scan through Vietnamese books, newspapers, documents and previous interviews. Though the incidents in question happened 40 to 50 years ago, the group continuously searches for any new clue that will provide them with answers.

“Most of these sites are becoming more and more difficult to find, and I can say that one of the best feelings that I've ever had is going to a site with a witness who's very sure about where the burial is or where the crash site is,” he said. “I mean, that's success. So your emotions will run a gamut between that extreme joy when you find someone or when you send somebody home, to those sites when you get out there and the witness says, ‘It's somewhere here. I can't really tell you where it is,' and, ‘Oh, by the way, it used to be a jungle. Now, it's a rubber plantation (and) it's been bulldozed two or three times.'

Because Vietnam is growing so quickly, structurally and economically, some of the sites DPAA is looking for end up impacted. This was the case at the rubber plantation Ward visited in a southern part of the country. Upon the realization that he wouldn't be able to recover the service member at the industrial site, his heart sank. Sadly, he told the missing man, “We came and looked for you, and I'm so close to you right now. We did the best that we could.'

“To get that close to finding someone, and then for whatever reason – development or not enough information – you realize you're not going to be able to find the individual, it hurts.”

DPAA's mission is to provide the fullest possible accounting of missing U.S. personnel to their families and the nation. They make an effort to find every single unaccounted service member from previous conflicts, but, unfortunately, they may not always be able to bring them home.

It is an aspect that hits Ward hard. After working in the Air Force for 20 years as a Vietnamese linguist, he takes the job personally.

“This has become a defining mission for me,” Ward said. “I've been doing something related to Vietnam since I was 19 to 20 years old, and the POW/MIA mission has become something that you think about from morning until night. It becomes part of you. It really gets in your blood. When you resolve a case, it's a great joy, and then those cases that you haven't resolved yet keep you up at night. You feel driven to do this.”

As time passes, the DPAA investigators become increasingly familiar with each unresolved case. They reread all steps taken for recovery and try to plan a way forward. The researchers get to know more about the person they are looking for and many times also know the service members' families. As such, each case is more than just a number on a folder to Ward – he sees the person, and that motivates him to work even harder.

“The obstacles that we have now are all related to time,” Ward said. “What do I need in order to find a crash or burial site? I need information — from witnesses, mostly. How old are most of those witnesses now? Very old. The youngest ones who participated in the war are in their 60s … All of them are getting very elderly, if they are not already passed away, so we're losing witnesses.”

As witnesses age, so do the families waiting for answers.

“It's a race against time in order to solve these cases within the lifetimes of the U.S. family members (of) these missing Americans from this war in Vietnam,” Ward said. “Unfortunately, and it's a very sad thing, very few of the mothers and fathers are left. So we're talking about siblings, wives, so that's another race. We want to do this while it still has that type of meaning for the families who are still alive.”

In fiscal year 16, the DPAA plans to conduct four joint field activities in country – involving 95 U.S. personnel and their Vietnamese counterparts – in order to conduct several new investigations and excavations in Vietnam, according to the organization. Currently, more than 1,600 Vietnam War veterans remain unaccounted for.

“My part in that, I think, would be to continue to keep at it, continue to look for information, continue to be engaged, continue to be enthused and excited about doing it, which I am,” Ward said. “The next period — five years, 10 years — we really have to keep at it. We have to have that sense of urgency. We have to continue to engage the Vietnamese government. We have to continue to engage the U.S. government to say, ‘Hey, don't forget. We've made this commitment. We have to do this.'”

Back in the U.S., Colleen continues to stay involved in the mission to bring home missing or lost service members. She works closely with the National League of POW/MIA Families, an organization with that ideal as its driving force.

“There was no road map or path for my mom and (other) wives or parents of young men who were missing back in the 1960's and ‘70s,” she said. “Now there is.

“I am thrilled to see the overhauling of the POW/MIA issue to make it more of an integrated and efficient process for families and our missing,” she added. “… I would hope that anyone in an active-duty uniform knows that should they be left behind or kept behind following a war, there would be a responsible effort to account for them. I feel great passion and gratitude for that.”

At Arlington National Cemetery in October 1996, Colleen and her family presided over a memorial service for her father. She now knows that Tony Shine died when his plane went down in December 1972. Her father's case is no longer open – he is home.

“My hope for the many families that I know who still have loved ones missing in action is that they will know that our government has made an honest effort to account for them -- that any answers that are available will have been tracked down, found and revealed to them,” Colleen said, adding with a wish that “if the answer is that their loved one was killed in action in Vietnam decades ago, they will be able to bring him home and have an honorable burial on American soil and know that they have kept the fight and the faith for him.”

By U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Jette Carr
Provided through DVIDS
Copyright 2016

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