CANNON AIR FORCE BASE, N.M. --
There are more than 82,000 missing personnel from the United States’ conflicts, from World War II to present day. While it’s the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency’s mission to provide the fullest possible accounting for these personnel, it wouldn’t be possible without Explosive Ordnance Disposal technicians.
DPAA heads to the locations where missing soldiers’ remains are predicted to be and begin excavating in search of their remains.
It’s an EOD technician’s job to ensure all unexploded ordnances are properly disposed of, ensuring that nobody at the dig site is endangered.
“The opportunity was extremely unique and it’s super rare to even get this chance,” said Senior Airman Joseph Gleason, 27th Special Operations Civil Engineer Squadron EOD technician. “It's incredibly fulfilling to go out to Vietnam and search for remains of fallen veterans.”
Their mission was to find a man who had been lost nearly half a century ago; it was the sixth time the DPAA had been in Vietnam looking for him. This was the DPAA’s latest effort to find the remains of this individual.
“The pilot flew a recon-type plane, found an enemy location and decided to attack,” said Gleason. They didn't hear anything back from him and they came to the conclusion that he had been shot down.”
The DPAA took on the mission many years later by first finding the crater his aircraft created when it crashed and then setting out to find his remains.
“We were in the Ha Tinh Province of Vietnam, it's around the middle of the country near the coast line,” Gleason said. “The terrain was pretty much a huge rice paddy. There were hundreds of square yards of just mud and water.”
The mission consisted of all four branches of service, locals, and Vietnamese officers all working together to accomplish the task at hand.
“There were about 20 people from the U.S.,” Gleason said. “At the same time at the site we had 80 to 100 Vietnamese people working with us.”
Explosive Ordnance Disposal technicians have a variety of vital roles to play on these missions.
“An EOD technician, for the most part will work with everyone at the dig site, but there are a couple of different specialty positions like communications officers and recovery non-commissioned officers,” Gleason said. “Recovery NCOs make up a majority of the team. They're people that are there to dig, and do everything like that.”
The primary role of EOD is to work side by side with everyone else until any unexploded ordnance is found and needs to be identified and dealt with properly.
“We dug in three-by-three meter squares (called a unit), dug eight-to-ten inches down, and once it was flattened, an EOD tech would come by with a metal detector to scan it for metal or debris,” Gleason said
Several stations were set up with giant mesh screens and hoses over them for the mud and dirt to be washed away, allowing anything covered to be revealed.
“We would have one American on the outside of the stations that were set up, two Vietnamese people on the inside who would drop mud in the buckets, and then rinse out the buckets and help us go through them,” Gleason explained.
However, the majority of the work done by EOD was supervising the locals and helping them dig through the earth as they searched unit by unit.
“To get the dirt out from the unit, there were two lines from each dig site moving buckets back and forth,” Gleason said. “At the same time the team leader and anthropologist would map out the grids. They would take white string and measure it out from 8:00 a.m. in the morning until 3:30 p.m. in the afternoon.”
During the mission someone had found a 20mm ammunition round and precautions needed to be taken to ensure it was not explosive.
Unexploded Ordnance Disposal pits are used to safeguard anything that could be hazardous to personnel and workers at the dig site.
“The Vietnamese dug a meter down into the dirt in a one-by-one foot square, piled up a bunch of sandbags; that was the UXO pit off in the distance,” Gleason said.
After further research of the unidentified object, it was determined not to be hazardous.
For all five prior missions before this, one small piece of possible human remains was all that was found. Within a week of this final search, another possible piece was found.
Sometime after that, Gleason found a second possible piece of human remains. The anthropologist on site said that it was an important contribution to the mission.
On the sixth and probably final mission to find the remains of the missing service member, the team was able to locate some potentially vital evidence. That material was sent to the DPAA lab where scientists will conduct thorough examinations to determine if the missing man’s remains have been located. If the results are positive, his family will be notified and finally receive the closure they have sought for nearly five decades.