I’ve always thought the best part of my job as photojournalist in the U.S. Air Force is that I get to see so much of the big picture of the Department of Defense and how every job plays a part in putting that picture together.
Given the right assignment, for a few hours, days, weeks or even months, I can be embedded in almost any unit of any military branch of almost any allied nation. It’s crazy to the think about sometimes, but it still rarely shocks me. However, my last two temporary-duty assignments did just that.
The first TDY was with the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency. They are tasked with finding the more than 83,000 service members who are still unaccounted for from past wars, including World War II and the Vietnam War. On the particular mission to which I was assigned, we were tasked to find evidence of service members who had gone missing over eastern Germany during WWII.
As the photographer on the team, I was tasked to document our daily actions on the recovery site. When I wasn’t taking photos, I was next to my fellow team members — in sunshine, rain or even hail — digging and screening dirt, searching for anything to indicate we were searching in the right place.
The work could be difficult and tedious at times, especially when we spent days going through tons of dirt, not finding anything of any real substance. But then we would find something that would give a glimmer of hope. It may have been a small glimmer, but it was something to suggest we might be finally giving a fallen hero and his family some sense of peace.
Ultimately, that’s what a DPAA mission comes down to: finding a fallen hero and giving his or her family some form of closure. If you ever get the chance to be on one of these missions, this is likely what will keep you motivated, especially through those days of bad weather and no findings.
We leave these missions before we find out if anything we found actually belonged to the people we were searching for, but just finding anything leaves you with a great sense of accomplishment.
I left that mission thinking the only thing that could make us feel better about what we did, what our country is delegating resources to do, is getting a confirmation that we found one of those fallen heroes, but my next TDY quickly changed my mind.
My next TDY, which began only a week after I got back, was to Normandy to document the events commemorating the D-Day landing and eventual liberation of the area.
As I attended the numerous events, walked on the shore of Omaha Beach and stood in front of the monuments dedicated to the men and women who bravely fought throughout the region, I gave quick, often-fleeting thoughts to what I had been doing not even two weeks before.
I had to focus on the mission at hand, so I tried my best not to let another aspect of the DPAA mission overwhelm me. At least for me, it was almost impossible to not think about the service members who we were searching for, who hadn’t made it home and who were often younger at the time of their possible death than I am right now.
But being in Normandy and walking in the same areas as these giants of history was almost overwhelming. Then, I got the chance to speak with one of the WWII veterans who had made the trip to show their respect to their comrades.
As he told his story, shared his pride in the fact that he saved lives and fought next to men who became his friends, and teared up at thinking about them, it took almost everything in me to not start crying with him.
His story and genuine emotions were moving, but it was the revelation that hit me like a sack of bricks as I was talking to him that really made me want to shed tears with him: this man, this hero who refuses to call himself one, may have served alongside the men I had been looking for.
I know this might have been a stretch, but the military is relatively small, and the chance that any of the men I had the opportunity to speak with actually served with or crossed paths with one of the fallen heroes I had searched for and they wept tears for isn’t impossible. Even more so, these men shed tears for those they hadn’t served alongside but still knew their experiences.
The feelings I felt at that moment will forever be hard to put into adequate words. However, among those feelings was a mixture of pride and sadness — pride for being one of the many people who had the opportunity to search for their comrades-in-arms and sadness for not having a definite answer if we found them.
But there was also a feeling of appreciation for being able to not only share that experience and that moment with these men but also for the opportunity DPAA and my job granted me to even be able to feel that.
It gave me an even greater appreciation for the Airman’s Creed quote, “I will never leave an Airman behind,” and the Soldier’s Creed quote, “I will never leave a fallen comrade.” These words and similar words spoken by other services are what the DPAA epitomizes, and they had never rung truer and more potent for me than they did that day, in that moment.
I can’t guarantee everyone would have a similar experience, but if you ever get the chance to go on a DPAA mission or go to Normandy during the D-Day commemorations, I highly encourage it. The experiences left me with a new appreciation for those heroes that came before me, and I’m sure they would do the same for you.