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    U.S. Army Corps of Engineers archaeologist aids POW-MIA team

    Ambassador Osius visits POW/MIA Accounting Agency site team in Vietnam

    Photo By Staff Sgt. Matthew Bruch | (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Matthew J. Bruch) John Campbell, right, visits...... read more read more



    Story by James Frisinger 

    U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Fort Worth District

    John Campbell has some unfinished business … in Kon Tum Province, Central Highlands, Socialist Republic of Vietnam, on the other side of the planet from his Galveston duty station.

    Campbell is living the life of a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Regional Planning and Environmental Center archaeologist. So he came back again to a mountain outpost not far from the borders of Cambodia and Laos to support the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA).

    It’s the same 800-square-meter excavation site where a U.S. fighter jet crashed nearly a half century ago. The new 16-member recovery team he joined picked up where his last team left off when they vacated the site in April 2016. Members are drawn from many of the military services; he is the only civilian.

    During the Vietnam War an RF-4C Phantom jet went missing during a mission in 1968. The recovery team’s goal: to recover any remains of the Air Force pilot and navigator believed to have been aboard.

    The U.S. works with the governments of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia to recover the remains of Americans missing from the Vietnam War. Since 1973, more than a thousand Americans killed in action have been recovered, according to the DPAA website. When identified, they are returned to their families for burial with full military honors.

    Large-scale field efforts of the kind carried out today have been ongoing since 1992. More than 1,600 Americans are still unaccounted for, according to the agency.

    The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was a supporting partner in these efforts back in the 1990s, said Michael “Sonny” Trimble, chief of the Mandatory Center of Expertise for the Curation and Management of Archaeological Collections (MCX-CMAC), St. Louis District. A year ago, after Congress asked that the recovery efforts be stepped up, the DPAA again contacted the Corps for support.

    During Fiscal Year 2016, Campbell’s first trip, the Corps supported 14 missions. This fiscal year, DPAA asked USACE to provide archaeologists for 21 missions, including Campbell’s second trip, according to Jennifer Riordan at the MCX-CMAC. The Corps employs about a hundred archaeologists/anthropologists. Campbell works for the Fort Worth District.

    It takes someone with the right personality who is willing to take on the challenge and perform at the 125 percent level, said Trimble. The rewards are great.

    Campbell is the lone archaeologist on this team. As recovery leader, he directs excavation site activities carried out by teammates assisted by dozens of local Vietnamese. The terrain is rugged, with mountain slopes varying between 50 and 60 degrees. It is a thousand feet above the base camp, which itself is at 6,000 feet – a challenging uphill hike every day.

    A team of specialists
    Some team members were communications or explosives detection experts. There was a medic, a couple of linguists and a mountaineer. A life support equipment specialist was ready to identify any items attached to pilot or crew member such as flight suit or parachute buckle. A team leader and team sergeant were the operational chain of command for everything beyond archaeology.

    The Vietnam War ended in 1975 but Campbell said family members of missing service members are still looking for a final resolution. Four team members brought dress uniforms during his first trip in case they had to accompany remains home.

    Two decades ago Campbell majored in anthropology at Texas A&M and earned a master’s degree in it at Texas State University. After spending many years of environmental consulting for universities and private companies – some of it “shovel bumming” archaeology work from site to site – he joined the Galveston District in 2011.

    Campbell’s dad was a Marine in Vietnam and now teaches mechanical engineering at Baylor. He encouraged his son to go.

    “I had a long conversation with him. The site I was working on was a crash site. Dad was an aviator so I quizzed him. He saw the nitty-gritty of what goes on, what happens, what comes out with the pilot,” said Campbell.

    The assignment requires a lot planning, an official passport, two weeks of training in Hawaii en route and getting lot of shots (16 immunizations for Southeast Asia missions). All the teams flew together aboard a C-17 out of Pearl Harbor Hickam. After a refueling stop in Guam, then it was to Pattaya, Thailand, then one night in Da Nang, Vietnam, at a hotel. Then they drove.

    He prepared two footlockers of gear that had to include all the food he would need. It was too much. In his first trip, he left half of it behind with the locals after learning to buy local food like eggs.

    ‘Pretty easy camping’
    He took too much clothing, too; support personnel provided laundry services. Thirty-five Vietnamese supported the team at base camp and up on the mountain. They built the team’s housing platforms. There was a toilet and shower. He had a mosquito net and bug spray, too – but there weren’t many bugs. It was a tropical forest, not a jungle. The weather was pleasant, sunny and cool. It got into the 40s one night, but never hotter than 85. It started raining the last couple of days.

    “Pretty easy camping,” he said. But hiking a thousand feet up the mountain every day was the hardest part.

    “It was the most physically taxing job I’ve ever done in archaeology. It was for everybody on the team, even the military guys. It took its toll on everybody.”

    Working with so many people was an interesting challenge.

    “I’ve never been on a dig when I had to manage almost 50 people. You’re digging a lot faster, so you have to keep up,” he said.

    Each day they would set out excavating a grid measuring 4 meters by 4 meters. Digging, screening, hauling dirt away. He was in charge of where to dig, how to dig, what to do with it. The DPAA has an accredited forensics laboratory so he had to carefully follow chain-of-custody rules.

    The team found a lot of wreckage in April but no human remains. It wasn’t able to demonstrate that the wreckage was from the plane believed lost; no serial numbers were recovered.

    “Recovery of human remains drives everything,” he said. “We don’t care how it crashed, it’s only useful in how it helps find the guy.”

    Campbell will spend November and December for his second trip of 2016. On the first trip Vietnamese team members would invite four or five U.S. team members to dinner every night, he said. Campbell became a frequent guest.

    The Vietnamese would cook a lot of salted fish, rice and pork belly. They ate winter melon, which looks like honeydew melon but tastes like squash, he said. They’d season dinner with nuoc mam, a fermented fish sauce spiced with chilies that Campbell liked.

    This second trip will be easier, he said, right before leaving. He got in better shape, mostly by running. He knows the terrain, and how much he has to teach people. And he has quality help.

    “The military people are fantastic,” he said of his colleagues. “They have a great work ethic. They brought a real positive spirit to the undertaking. It was not just a job.”



    Date Taken: 12.14.2016
    Date Posted: 12.16.2016 17:54
    Story ID: 218046
    Location: GALVESTON, TX, US 

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