190th supports MIA recovery mission in Vietnam

  • Published
  • By Capt. Joe Blubaugh
  • 190th Public Affairs
There has been little chance for closure for the families of more than 1300 Vietnam veterans who are listed as Missing in Action (MIA). We are often reminded of their plights during somber ceremonies at formal military events or by our local VFW or American Legion chapters that keep their memories alive.

Although some of the MIAs have been missing for more than 40 years, their service brethren haven't given up hope of someday returning them back to American soil, and to hopefully provide the closure so many families are still seeking.

Three or four times a year, the Joint POW/MIA Accountability Command (JPAC) sends a team of Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Marines to Vietnam to search for the remains of the missing servicemembers. JPAC's mission is to achieve the fullest possible accounting of all Americans missing as a result of the nation's past conflicts.

In February, the 190th Air Refueling Wing was tasked with transporting a 25-member advance team, and their cargo, to the Southeast Asian country. One of the unique aspects of the mission was paying for landing fees in a Communist country.

In the U.S. and most foreign countries, there are no landing fees or they are billed to the unit. However, there is no agreement in place with Vietnam, which requires a cash payment for landing fees.

The fees can vary widely from country-to-country, and even from day-to-day, so a large amount of cash was required. Financial regulations require a paying agent to make large cash transactions, so Master Sgt. Dorothy Westergren of Financial Management was tasked with that aspect of the mission.

The JPAC team is comprised of anthropologists, linguists, explosive ordinance specialists, logisticians and medics. The advance team works very closely with the Vietnamese government to negotiate potential excavation sites and sets up logistical infrastructure so excavations can begin immediately upon the arrival of the 50-member main body.

The full team is actually broken into several smaller teams with two distinctive missions. The recovery team's mission is to conduct excavations, looking for remains or equipment of missing servicemembers.

Choosing a location for an excavation is the responsibility of the research and investigation teams. While the excavations are ongoing, investigation teams are working with Vietnamese officials, interviewing witnesses and visiting potential sites for future missions.

Kelly Ray is a retired Air Force linguist and the team leader for one of the two investigation teams on this mission. This is Ray's 45th trip to Vietnam as a JPAC member including his military and civilian trips.

Ray's team has 32 scheduled interviews with retired Vietnamese Army veterans that were witnesses when a U.S. servicemeber was killed or went missing. That number could grow as further leads develop while they are in Vietnam.

During the interviews, the investigation team will have the witness take them to the burial site if possible. The investigation team will survey the site, and based on their findings, recommend the site for future excavation.

Ray says the information they gather is taken back to Hickam AFB, Hawaii, where a board reviews the recommendations and decides whether an excavation is warranted.
Army Capt. Greg Smith, the leader of one of the recovery teams, says a very small sample of human remains can lead to the identity of an MIA. "We only need a bone fragment the size of a tooth. " If remains are found, they are transported to Hickam, for further forensic investigation and DNA extraction.

Thanks to new genetic advances, DNA extracted from remains can now be compared to blood relatives of MIAs for identification. Smith says a DNA sample doesn't have to be from an immediate family member - a nephew, niece or grandchild's DNA will be able to provide enough evidence to make a positive identification.

Smith says it is critical that blood relatives of MIAs provide a DNA sample for comparison. "Unfortunately, we have remains that we can't identify because we don't have a DNA sample from their relatives." More information about providing DNA samples can be found on the JPAC Website at www.jpac.pacom.mil.

Each of the missions last approximately 45 days, but that is a small sacrifice for Smith. "This is America keeping its promise to bring home its fallen."

The importance of the JPAC mission was not lost on the members of the 190th. "I think people forget that we still have service members over there and their families still miss them," said Westergren. "While I might not be the team they send over to locate the remains, or the team than recovers the remains, or identifies them, I was a part of the team that made that possible."

Ray says it is the best feeling in the world when they make a positive identification and reunite the servicemember with their family. "This is the most rewarding job I have ever had - I couldn't think of doing anything else."