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Leaving no soldier behind

Kampong Cham provinceFor
more than four decades, Sann Khuon has intermittently lived in Kampong
Cham province’s Memot district – on land where three American soldiers
are suspected to have been killed and buried during the Vietnam War.
The recovery team and a group of Cambodian labourers use a high-powered
hose and mesh screen to search for evidence from the site where a US
military is believed to have been shot down. Photo by: Matt Lundy
About
40 years ago, when Sann Khuon was six years old, he claims to have seen
a helicopter shot down near his home, some three kilometres from the
Vietnamese border.
Sann Thuon (left) breaks down clumps of dirt in a plastic-lined pit so
that members of the recovery team can more easily collect bone
fragments and other evidence. Photo by: Matt Lundy
“I saw when the helicopter was on fire,” he
said. “I didn’t dare to come close to the helicopter because I was
chased away by the Vietnamese troops. But I know from the old people in
the area that Americans have died here.”
After the fall of the
Khmer Rouge in 1979, Sann Khuon and his family resettled on their plot
of land, which he says was littered with remnants of a blasted
helicopter.
“On my first time planting rice fields here, aircraft
parts cut my cow’s feet all the time,” he said. “Later, villagers
collected the scrap metal and sold it to brokers.”
Three decades later, Sann Khuon and a team of 20 Cambodians are excavating the suspected burial site.
They’re
working for a 12-person recovery team from the Joint POW/MIA Accounting
Command, a task force within the United States Department of Defense
that recovers the bodies of missing soldiers primarily from World War
II, Cold War conflicts, the Korean War and the Vietnam War.
JPAC
has been excavating in Kampong Cham and Kratie provinces for more than
two weeks – the command’s 44th joint field activity in Cambodia.
The
recovery team stationed in Kratie is searching an underwater crash site
for one American soldier, whose helicopter was shot down into the
Mekong River.
The other team is searching for three bodies in Memot district.
Lee
Tucker, public affairs officer for CPAC, said the Kampong Cham
excavation site was determined based on research from a CPAC
investigative team, including “eyewitness accounts and locals actually
pointing to the location”.
Near the site, he said, a helicopter carrying eight soldiers was shot down by a North Vietnamese unit.
“[The Americans] were able to crash land and a fire fight ensued,” he said.
“There were three killed on scene, and the rest were able to escape…. it’s the three killed on scene that we’re looking for.”
Further details about the site and its history are scant.
Tucker
says JPAC knows the missing soldiers’ identities, but will not reveal
that information until a laboratory in Hawaii has confirmed whatever
evidence is unearthed.
The date of the helicopter attack is also kept confidential, as is the site’s location in Memot district.
To
find remains at the excavation site, the recovery team performs a
three-step process. Workers dig four-by-four-metre sections, filling
wheelbarrows with soil.
Since the area’s soil is thick and muddy, it’s soaked in two basins to break it down.
Finally,
the majority of workers hose the sediment through a wire screen,
collecting whatever solid matter is caught in the fine mesh.
Laurel
Freas, a forensic anthropologist working at the site, says the recovery
team is looking for any evidence that might point to the recovery of
missing soldiers.
“We’re looking for, of course, human remains,” she said. “We’re looking for material evidence, which would be personal [items].
“And
we’re looking for what we call life-support evidence, which is military
equipment that the individuals would have had on their person.”
Any collected evidence is sent to the laboratory in Hawaii.
The
forensic anthropologists conduct their analysis “blind”, meaning they
don’t know the identity of the body under analysis “in order to prevent
any subconscious bias from influencing the scientist’s analysis”,
according to a description of the investigative process on the JPAC
website.
The final step is handing over the soldier’s remains to
family members, a process that Freas has been a part of in her 16
months with the command.
“There’s a lot of relief, there’s a lot of gratitude,” she said of the families’ reactions.
“There’s also mourning, sadness. It’s a complicated set of emotions for them.”
Captain JoAnn Kennedy, the recovery team leader, served two years in Iraq with the American military.
The command’s mandate – “Until they are home” – is personally reassuring for her.
“The
peace of mind our families get knowing that there’s a unit like this
out there – that if we go missing our government will not stop looking
for us – is a comfort for them,” she said. “And in turn it’s a comfort
us”.
Still, there are no guarantees the Kampong Cham excavation will turn up any bodies.
The process of recovering and identifying missing soldiers can take years.
More than 1,700 Americans are unaccounted for from the Vietnam War, including 59 that are presumed to be in Cambodia.
To date, 31 bodies have been recovered in the Kingdom.
Freas
said she couldn’t comment on whether any remains had been found during
the current excavation, though Tucker said last Tuesday that “so far we
haven’t found anything”.
For the next four weeks, the recovery
team and its Cambodian labourers will toil in the heat, digging and
sifting through Sann Khuon’s land for any trace of the three Americans
who are said to have died in Memot district.
Freas says it would
be “disappointing” if the mission didn’t find any human remains, but
that any excavation, even those that don’t unearth solid evidence,
proves worthwhile.
“There is that disappointment maybe, but there’s also resolve,” she says.
“It’s
strengthening for you to step back from it and say, ‘Alright, we’re
gonna keep going, we’ll keep looking till we find them’.
“And now we know where they’re not.”
Phnom Penh Post
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Categories: Local News
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