ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. – A steep mountainside. A large search area based in part on fading memories. Language barriers. Potential unexploded bombs. These were a few of the challenges District archaeologist Jeremy Decker encountered as part of a recovery team with the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA) in Vietnam this spring.
The DPAA is responsible for fulfilling a sacred promise to U.S. military service members. Should they be killed in battle, the nation pledges to do everything in its power to bring them home to their families.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) has a long history of supporting DPAA’s mission. Because of the many archaeologists it employs, USACE has been able to partner with DPAA in the effort to recover missing servicemen.
Last fall, when the request for volunteers went out, Decker seized the opportunity to join a DPAA recovery team. Ultimately his team was assigned a case involving a missing soldier from a helicopter crash in the jungles of Vietnam - one of the more than 1,600 service members from the Vietnam War still unaccounted for according to DPAA’s website.
“The mission was so interesting, and I had heard about it before and wanted to volunteer,” said Decker.
Decker’s experience was the culmination of years of research and investigation by DPAA. Since the end of the Vietnam War there have been efforts to account for missing U.S. military personnel. However, it wasn’t until the 1990s that the Vietnamese and U.S. governments reached a level of cooperation that allowed American teams on the ground in Vietnam to search for and recover missing service members.
Going in, Decker wasn’t sure how the legacy of the Vietnam War would affect his work there. Would the people there be hostile to the team? “The people in the community treated us very well and were very friendly. The younger people in particular were very interested in interacting with us and learning about American culture,” he said.
Long before DPAA even begins to think about the possibility of a recovery team, they perform extensive research to get as much information as possible on where to look. In Decker’s case, investigators examined the records and accounts of witnesses of the crash – including not just Americans who survived, but also Vietnamese villagers who lived nearby at the time and Vietnamese military personnel involved with the crash.
From these accounts, the researchers put together a general idea of where to look for the crash site. Then they evaluated the site to see if witness accounts were plausible and consistent with the physical terrain. Only then, with a reasonable search location narrowed down, could they send in a recovery team.
A recovery team generally consists of about 10-15 Americans – all U.S. military representing all branches of the service. The only exception is the recovery leader who is always an archaeologist or anthropologist and can be either military or civilian.
As the team’s recovery leader, Decker was in charge of all the archaeological work while the team was in-country. “Anything related to the archaeology was my decision,” he said. This included things such as exactly where they would dig, how the labor would be divided, and determining what artifacts were relevant to the case. He also was in charge of evidence handling and the chain of custody should anything be found.
“It was really a great challenge. I enjoyed it. To sort of problem solve that kind of difficult situation,” he said. “Things we typically wouldn’t have to deal with here in the U.S.”
DPAA arranged for locals to help with the excavation work. About 60 local workers assisted with general labor, primarily hauling and screening dirt.
While their work helped with the excavation, it wasn’t without a few challenges. Decker said he usually works with eight to ten people who have archaeological training on a site in the U.S. In this case, because no one else had archaeological training, Decker had to teach everyone what to do on the site.
Decker also faced challenges posed by the physical terrain. He described himself as a “desert archaeologist,” and said he is used to “working on fairly flat ground, at a fairly small excavation site that is usually determined by where the ruin under investigation is located.”
In Vietnam, the site he was excavating was on a steep, forested mountainside. Originally jungle, in the 50 years since the war the land had been cultivated and is now a eucalyptus tree farm. Decker also said the site was much larger than what he usually encounters in the U.S.
One of the main methods archaeologists employ while excavating a site is to sift the dirt, screening out the larger objects of interest. The best place to do this is on level or fairly level ground – not on the side of steep incline.
Due to the scale of the project and the amount of dirt that needed screening, Decker had to be creative, building a metal chute from the excavation site to the nearest level ground where screens were set up. Using gravity, the chute transported the dirt down the mountainside.
Because the local workers didn’t speak English, communication was another challenge. While the team had a couple of interpreters, the language difference still slowed things down, especially at first.
At the beginning of the trip, Decker said he had visions of being able to run a metal detector over the excavation site and find some initial evidence such as metal pieces from a uniform or plane wreckage. His enthusiasm for this method didn’t last. During the Vietnam War there were so many bombs and munitions dropped on Vietnam, that even today, decades later, the use of a metal detector is impractical. There is still enough shrapnel and munitions that remain in the ground that a metal detector would be constantly set off.
Unexploded Ordnance (UXO) was a constant concern as they presented a significant threat and could shut down the site. Luckily the team only encountered a single piece of UXO, and it was disposed of by the team’s UXO technician.
As if the language barrier, on-the-job learning, threat of UXO, and the physical terrain weren’t enough obstacles to overcome, the passage of five decades impacted the mission. Memories fade, witnesses die or become hard to find and the site conditions change. The possibility was there that evidence washed away or they were looking in the wrong spot, based on the fading memories of witnesses.
Overall, Decker said the experience was positive, and that the trip helped “improve me as an archaeologist.” He counts “working with such a talented team of soldiers and being in a small community at the site and getting to know the people in the community” among his favorite parts of the trip. Because the excavation site was close to the village, Decker and his team were able to interact with many of the local workers there. “We got to play soccer and volleyball with the guys in the evenings which was really great!"
Decker said he choose archaeology because “I love sciences, wanted to be able to work outdoors, and I find learning about different cultures and people fascinating.” He also considers himself “a naturally curious person.” This trip combined all of these elements he loves about his job plus the added satisfaction that his work was “my chance to serve my country. I was humbled by the opportunity and very proud to have served with such a wonderful team.”
Decker said that while he can’t talk about the results of the mission due to DPAA policy and out of respect for the serviceman’s family, the mission was “very much a success.” They had a specific goal to investigate a site and they accomplished it.
Would he go back?
“Actually, I am going back this winter to investigate another case.”