CAMP PENDLETON, Calif. – More than 40 years have passed since the last American combat troops returned from Vietnam, leaving more than a thousand unaccounted-for Americans in Indochina.
The Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command sets out to find their remains and bring closure to their loved ones back home.
To complete this mission, JPAC employs personnel from all branches of the military to aid in the search and recovery of missing servicemembers abroad.
Marines with 1st Explosive Ordnance Disposal Company, 7th Engineer Support Battalion, Combat Logistics Regiment 1, 1st Marine Logistics Group, are often selected to support these teams.
Staff Sgt. Thomas H. Nguyen and Sgt. Kacie M. Worley, EOD technicians with 1st EOD Co., returned from separate JPAC missions in Vietnam, where they joined investigative teams to sweep for unexploded ordnance at potential remain sites of lost servicemembers.
“JPAC is a joint organization that sends out recovery and investigation teams to look for missing servicemembers throughout the world,” said Nguyen, a native of Los Angeles. “Our role is to find or identify any explosive hazards around the dig-site.”
These hazards may include undetonated explosives left over from the war by both sides. EOD Marines ensure the safety of the excavation area by detecting the ordnance before any digging begins.
“We want to go over there and bring people home but we have to make sure we are safe doing it,” said Worley, a native of Coburg, Ore. “You can never make sure there isn’t any [unexploded ordnance], but if we find it, we can take care of it.”
Nguyen said it is extremely common to find unexploded weapons at the dig-sites. He said his site was particularly dangerous because it was near the Ho Chi Minh trail, a logistical supply route used by the Democratic Republic of Vietnam during the war.
“It is extremely common to find [unexploded ordnance] at these sites,” said Nguyen. “I was digging in Northern Vietnam; right off the Ho Chi Minh trail. There was definitely out there.”
JPAC teams consist of 10 to 14 personnel, including a forensic anthropologist, team leader, linguist, medic, life support specialist, communications specialist, forensic photographer, mortuary affairs specialist and EOD technician.
Nguyen and Worley were also involved in the excavation process. After the site was swept and cleared of ordnance, they helped with the digging and sifting efforts, using standard field archaeology methods, directed by the on-site archeologists.
Painstakingly, each section of a site’s perimeter is excavated one grid at a time. Every inch of soil is screened for any suspected remains, life support equipment or material evidence. To aid in this effort, JPAC hires local workers to work side-by-side with the teams.
When the recovery effort is finished, the teams return to Hawaii and the remains are sent to a lab for analysis. Once the cases are complete, the families of the deceased are personally notified.
“Their families don’t have any closure,” said Worley. “JPAC is going out there trying to get closure for these families that don’t know what happened to their loved ones. We do our best. They’re not giving up until they have exhausted every area around the site. It’s a noble mission.”
To the Marines, this mission goes beyond giving closure to the families. It’s about returning a fallen brother home and never leaving a man behind is an ethos shared by all branches of the military.
“There’s not too many countries out there that put in the effort to recover their servicemembers,” said Nguyen. “I think it’s important because everybody deserves to come home, to be brought back to American soil, the country they died defending. Marines don’t leave each other behind. That’s how important these recovery missions are to me personally and to us as a nation.”