Vietnam vets impressed by scope of POW/MIA efforts;

16 Jun 2005 | Ms. Donna Miles

When Vietnam veterans hear that the military is committed to accounting for every last one of their comrades left behind in Southeast Asia, many admit they think it's little more than lip service.But active-duty servicemembers here for "Operation Homecoming USA" are giving them faith that the U.S. military is working aggressively to account for some 1,800 Americans still missing from the Vietnam War.A team from the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command at Hickam Air Force Base, Hawaii, has temporarily set up shop in a small, olive-drab tent on the grounds of The Grand Palace theater. The theater complex is the epicenter of activities for Operation Homecoming USA, an official welcome home celebration for Vietnam veterans that's expected to attract as many as 50,000 veterans here this week."We're here to raise awareness among the veteran community that we are out there, actively conducting recovery operations," said Air Force Master Sgt. Rex Hodges, a life support and wreckage investigator for the command.If a temporary respite from the hot sun is what attracts the veterans into the JPAC tent, it's what they learn when they step inside that keeps them there.Team members describe the painstaking investigation, recovery and identification process that goes into uncovering remains and artifacts left from the war.They show the veterans samples of equipment fragments and personal effects found at crash sites already excavated by JPAC teams and explain the detective work involved in matching them to a specific mission.Once these remains are repatriated to Hickam Air Force Base, team members explain, the command's Central Identification Laboratory -- the world's largest forensic anthropology lab --use the most advanced science available to match them to a specific missing servicemember.Many veterans don't know there's an organization that goes into Southeast Asia in search of those missing from the war -- and elsewhere in the world to search for those missing from conflicts dating back to World War II, Hodges said.In fact, JPAC conducts 10 on-the-ground missions in Southeast Asia every year: four in Vietnam, five in Laos and one in Cambodia, explained Marine Corps Staff Sgt. Martin Fiedler, an intelligence specialist for the command. His job is to sift through information gleaned from witnesses and other sources, incorporate it with available intelligence and determine if there's enough plausible evidence to propose an excavation mission."A lot of people don't know that we're out there," Fiedler said. "They're surprised that we have so many missions going on, and that we're able to operate (in Vietnam)."Army Sgt. 1st Class Danny Fleming, assistant team leader during the missions and a mortuary affairs specialist, said many veterans are surprised to learn that the Vietnamese people treat the JPAC teams well and work with them side by side during recovery missions."They're pretty cooperative," Fleming said, adding that some local Vietnamese citizens even invite the team members to their homes for dinner.Many of the veterans who visited the JPAC tent said they were amazed by what they learned. "I knew there were people who would go in and recover things, but I didn't realize it was this extensive," said Bob Toomey, who served in Vietnam with the 116th Transportation Company from 1967 to 1968."It's uplifting to know they're still out there, searching for guys to bring them home," said Toomey, whose brother has a close friend still missing from the war.Several veterans who stepped into the tent asked team members about specific servicemembers still listed as missing from the Vietnam War. Fiedler tapped into a database on his laptop computer and was able to report on the status of their cases, and in some instances, promising forward progress."It's good to see that the government cares," said Giles Hughes, an Air Force veteran of the Vietnam War who admits he didn't always feel that way about his government. "It makes me feel comfortable to know that this is going on."JPAC members feel a special bond, not only with families of the missing, but with veterans as well, team members said."They relate to us because they know we've walked the same ground they have," said Hodges. "It creates a very special tie."It's a bond that brings JPAC team members tremendous gratification as they help educate veterans, families and the public about ongoing efforts to account for America's missing servicemembers."We're helping to bring closure, not just to families, but to veterans, too," Hodges said. "And it gives me great pleasure to be able to raise awareness about what we are doing and to let them know we're not just giving lip service to 'You are not forgotten.'"
Headquarters Marine Corps