MIA: A Search Begun in a Washington D.C., Boardinghouse 140 Years Ago Continues Today as a $100-Million-a-Year Effort to Reunite the U.S. Military and American Families with Their Missing Soldiers

By Snyder, Rachel Louise | American Heritage, February-March 2005 | Go to article overview

MIA: A Search Begun in a Washington D.C., Boardinghouse 140 Years Ago Continues Today as a $100-Million-a-Year Effort to Reunite the U.S. Military and American Families with Their Missing Soldiers


Snyder, Rachel Louise, American Heritage


ATOP A HALF-MILE-HIGH MOUNTAIN DEEP IN THE HEART OF THE A Shau Valley in central Vietnam, a poisonous worm snake winds itself onto the edge of a spade. After a fleeting glance, the U.S. sergeant holding the spade, Tammi Reeder, 34, flicks her wrist and flings the vermilion serpent into the double-canopy jungle surrounding this mountaintop enclave. It is the fourth such snake in an hour and about the millionth over the past several weeks, so this group of 10 U.S. military personnel, 2 civilian anthropologists, and more than 70 Vietnamese workers have developed a resigned tolerance for reptiles.

We are in a cloud forest, three miles from the Laos border in the A Luoi District, an hour's helicopter ride from anything. Verdant trees--banana, banyan, traveler's palm, and cassia--are rooted in curried mud. A wet layer of humidity wilts the jungle. The group's mission is to find and repatriate a warrant officer whose Huey helicopter went down in May of 1967 with three other crew members. Those three were rescued within 48 hours. In the days afterward, several attempts were made to retrieve him too, but heavy enemy fire made it impossible.

This search is one of more than 15 that take place annually under the charge of the Department of Defense's Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command (JPAC) in Hawaii--400 military personnel and civilian anthropologists and archeologists who so far have conducted more than 80 Prisoners of War/Missing in Action operations in the Philippines, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, North Korea, Burma, and many other places. On average, JPAC identifies 2 soldiers a week in its forensic laboratory, which is the largest in the world. There remain today more than 78,000 missing soldiers from World War II (of which 35,000 are deemed recoverable), more than 1,800 from Vietnam, 8,100 from Korea, 126 from the Cold War, and 1 from the 1991 Persian Gulf War.

To decide which of this multitude to try to locate, JPAC's Casualty Data section analyzes each case, assessing such factors as the political stability of the country, available weather windows, safety, and accessibility. Once adequate information has been collected and analyzed, the intelligence, operations, and laboratory sections decide whether or not to pursue a recovery. Basically, they go for the easiest to reach--an approach that gets more difficult with every passing year.

All the cases involve the dead. The wistful, angry conviction that grew up in America after Vietnam that prisoners were still being held has spurred JPAC to pursue thousands of reports of "live sightings" throughout Southeast Asia. Not a single case was found to be credible. While they continue to follow up any such leads, investigators do not believe that any living soldiers are being held from past wars.

Augustus Goodman, the 30-year-old anthropologist in charge of this mission, has the regal stance of a nineteenth-century explorer and the quiet manner of a philosopher. "It's an amazing endeavor. Not many other cultures go as far as--" He stops. Perching on a small rock, he gazes out to the jungle and away from the work going on behind him, where the sound of shifting, sifting earth is constant and quiet and Peter, Paul & Mary songs from a generation ago filter from a tiny tape player hung on a tree limb. Goodman wears a baroque wedding band of gold and gunmetal on a parachute cord around his neck, and a torn-off corner of a T-shirt tied kerchief-style over his shoulders. He speaks Greek and is learning Vietnamese. "How far we go to honor those who died," he continues after the pause. "It says a lot about our society."

THE UNITED STATES HAS NOT always gone so far. The search for missing soldiers postwar is relatively new. Historically, U.S. soldiers were given a burial only when time, family connections or money, and manpower would allow, and even then it tended to be unceremonious and expeditious. The missing, however, remained eternal mysteries to their families. …

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