They wake in the early hours of the morning to go out to their site. They set up screening stations, and for the next six to eight hours, they withstand the changing weather as they search through tons of dirt one bucket at a time.
They look more like gold miners than service members, but they aren’t searching for gold. They are looking for something, to some, more important than gold. They are looking for evidence of a fallen hero’s presence.
The Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency seeks to provide the fullest possible accounting for missing personnel from past wars to their families and the nation. These men and women are the way they do that.
“It’s my job to make sure a fallen hero is presentable to their families and given the honor they deserve,” said Sgt. 1st Class Joseph Stoner, NCO in charge of Mortuary Affairs, 16th Sustainment Brigade, 21st Theater Sustainment Command. “It’s different being out here looking for evidence of someone’s presence, but it’s no less important that we are as dedicated and thorough to honor these fallen heroes.”
There are approximately 82,000 personnel who are unaccounted for from past conflicts, including soldiers from World War II. It is with the personnel this number represents and their loved ones that the Department of Defense formally created one agency, DPAA, responsible for the recovery and accounting of missing service members from these conflicts.
With assistance from host nations, DPAA sends out a research and investigation team to comb through archives and talk to military or governmental officials with knowledge of a particular region or battle to track down leads.
An investigative team will follow up on the leads of the RIT to obtain enough information to connect a particular site with unaccounted personnel. Their findings and recommendations help to determine recovery sites.
Once a site has been designated, recovery teams are deployed to begin their search.
“The work can be tough, and it can be disheartening when you search through tons and tons of soil and find nothing,” said Dr. Meghan-Tomasita Cosgriff-Hernandez, a forensic anthropologist with DPAA. “But when you do find something, it’s a great feeling to know that not only was the research and investigation worthwhile but also that you are closer to giving a family closure. That’s a great feeling.”
Cosgriff-Hernandez said that even though the goal is to find someone and remove their missing-in-action label, it isn’t always a bad to find nothing.
“It typically takes about five recovery missions to close down a site,” Cosgriff-Hernandez said. “If after a few visits to a site we don’t find anything else, it might just mean we’ve found all that was there. If we could, we would comb through entire fields looking for even the smallest thing, but experience has shown us when we need to start looking toward another site and working toward giving another family some peace of mind.”
Cosgriff-Hernandez looks at that as the ultimate goal of her job, and Stoner agrees.
“The DPAA European detachment commander visited our site and told us about a family member who was being interviewed about her fallen hero, her family being found,” Stoner said. “She was asked if we owed the men and women anything. At first, she said no. Then, she came back to say we owe them their names because they don’t deserve to be listed as missing in action. We owe them their names. I think that’s the least we can do.”