The Search for Vietnam War MIAs in the Jungles of Laos
Above Photo: Khammouan Province, Laos – A Lao Westcoast Helicopter shuttles team members from a recovery site to the riverbed landing zone. (JPAC)
An interview with Major Jamie Dobson, Public Affairs Officer for the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command (JPAC) by Peter Alan Lloyd
(An account of how I first stumbled upon the Ta-Oy JPAC MIA facility, and further photographs of it, appear here: http://peteralanlloyd.com/general-news/discovering-a-real-us-mia-camp-in-laos-part-1/)
PAL: How long has the JPAC Ta-Oy camp been in existence?
MJD: The Ta-Oy Base Camp (TBC as we call it) was initially built in 2002.
PAL: Which parts of Laos does it cover? Only the south, or the whole of Laos?
MJD: The sites that the TBC covers include the surrounding area around the camp (Xe Kong Province) out to an approximate 20 minute radius by MI-17 helicopter.
PAL: Are they the Lao Weather helicopters in the compound?
MJD: Yes. We contract out our helos from Lao Air, which is a commercial enterprise separate from the military or government.
PAL: Do you have other, similar JPAC base camps in Laos?
MJD: The TBC is the only base camp of its kind in Laos. It was erected in 2002 because there weren’t suitable hotels/guest house options for the teams to work out of in the area. Also, there were a sufficient number of actual and potential sites in the region to warrant the project.
PAL: As you know, the area around Ta-Oy was intersected with major routeways of the Ho Chi Minh Trail during the Vietnam War. Does that have anything to do with the number of sites in the vicinity of the camp?
MJD: It could certainly be considered a contributing factor. However, our focus is really entirely on the individuals.
PAL: Approximately how many Vietnam War recovery sites do you think there are in the area, in a twenty-minute chopper ride radius of the camp?
MJD: When Ta-Oy Base Camp opened in 2002 I think there were about 20-30 sites or possible sites in the vicinity, and this number changes from year-to-year, because of the way JPAC conducts its work.
When JPAC teams are based out of Ta-Oy Base Camp, the teams will either be conducting investigation or recovery operations within the area.
JPAC breaks the work down into four phases, first the research and analysis phase, which we predominantly do at JPAC headquarters in Hawaii. Once enough information has been analyzed and a solid lead has been developed, JPAC then conducts a “boots on the ground” investigation in the country of loss. If the investigation pans out, a site is added to the master excavation list and a future recovery operation will be conducted.
After a recovery operation is conducted and remains and material evidence is found, the laboratory analysis phase is conducted at JPAC’s Central Identification Laboratory back in Hawaii.
So, especially during the first two phases a lot of information is being analyzed and developed.
PAL: Roughly how many crash sites do you think there are throughout Laos?
MJD: Crash site is probably an inaccurate term because not all excavation sites are from crashes. We also have cases where we are looking for burial sites where missing US personnel are believed to have been buried by enemy forces or locals.
We have about 80 sites on our Master Excavation List right now in Laos, representing both crash and burial sites. We have about an equal number of leads that we are investigating that could possibly lead to more excavation sites in the future.
PAL: How many people work at the Ta-Oy camp?
MJD: The number fluctuates. During time periods when we are not using the camp we have a caretaker contractor who employs a few locals to maintain the camp. The Lao government maintains a security guard force year round.
When our teams come in, the contractor hires an additional five local workers to help with the cleaning and general upkeep of the camp. We are also in the process of hiring a local contractor to provide a limited restaurant and laundry service for the teams.
PAL: I saw a lot of A-frames. How many are on-site?
MJD: We have concrete slabs for 96 A-frames, but that would be full capacity and we don’t normally have full capacity.
PAL: How many people work in the recovery teams – and do they split up to investigate different sites?
MJD: We are limited by the Lao government to 53 people coming in at any one time. Out of these 53 we have two or three Communications personnel who stay permanently at the base camp and one stays in Vientiane.
We can have 4 teams at any given time and the teams consist of 10 to 12 personnel, which will include the following: Team Leader (usually a Captain or Major or Senior Non-Commissioned Officer), an Anthropologist, Explosive Ordnance Disposal technician, Support Investigator (an aviation expert who can identify aircraft parts from wreckage), Translator, Medic, and a couple of guys to help sift dirt
PAL: How many weeks or months a year do teams go out in search of crash sites from the camp?
MJD: We conduct four Joint Field Activities a year; two of which are 45 days long and two are 30 days long. It is not yet clear exactly how many times we will use Ta-Oy Base Camp in 2014 and beyond.
Our command has a way of prioritizing our operations based on numerous factors that point to the potential for successfully finding an unaccounted-for American, as well as taking into account how perishable sites can be. For instance, if a site is in danger of being paved over for a new road or shopping center, we would obviously make it a priority to get a team there in a timely manner.
There are currently about 20 sites around Ta-Oy which, when completed, will allow us to turn the land back over to the Lao. The Lao are not charging us for the use of the land and with the economic development picking up in the region they would like the land back. So for the foreseeable future we will attempt to strike a balance between working sites in the vicinity of Ta-Oy, while still addressing the numerous cases throughout the rest of Laos.
PAL: What are the challenges faced by recovery teams on the ground in Laos
MJD: Missions in Laos can be exceptionally challenging for JPAC recovery and investigation teams. The topography can range from extremely steep cliffs to muddy swamp land to rice paddies to overgrown jungles or village environments.
Some teams move by helicopter and these teams can lose significant work hours waiting for the fog to clear so the team can travel. Teams work in hot and humid environments, and also have to be careful of poisonous or harmful indigenous insects and reptiles.
In much of South East Asia, the soil is extremely acidic and this can lead to significant deterioration of human remains. Other environmental factors that negatively impact the condition of human remains include the excessive rainfall, frequent flooding and “slope wash” that can dislodge the remains from their original resting places, and in some parts of Laos the employment of a slash and burn farming technique can also endanger sites. There is also the threat of some pests, such as ants, termites and rodents, damaging remains.
PAL: Are there any operating restrictions AT ALL placed by the Laotian government on MIA recovery teams working out of the camp? Or do the teams have unfettered access in their whole area of operations?
MJD: Before the teams come in we coordinate with the Lao about what sites we want to visit and then the Lao central government officials coordinate with the local governments and villages to provide us with access and negotiate land compensation.
This is our standard process in the countries where we operate and throughout the years we have solidified good working relationships with the governments with whom we work.
PAL: If there was an alleged ‘live sighting’ in Laos could that be investigated by camp personnel?
MJD: Any live sighting would be investigated by our investigation team personnel and/or with analysts from the Defense Prisoner of War/Missing Personnel Office (DPMO). More than likely the team would operate from Ta-Oy if the sighting was from that area.
PAL: Do you get many live sightings a year these days?
MJD: Of the original 81 individuals “Last Known Alive” in Laos (those who survived or may have survived their loss incident and were either alive on the ground, in captivity, or in immediate proximity to capture, but did not return), DoD has confirmed the death of 62, with 19 still unresolved.
PAL: Do you ever recover remains of North Vietnamese or Pathet Lao troops? If so, what do you do with them?
MJD: Generally in the case where the remains recovered are not US personnel, we coordinate with the appropriate countries to repatriate the remains and this is the case for Laos.
PAL: Finally, what is the feeling when human remains are recovered at a crash site in Laos?
MJD: Reactions are mixed. There is tremendous satisfaction and hope that we have moved a step closer to providing a family with closure and giving a service member or another American the honor and respect his or her sacrifice deserves. But there is also the somber realization we are handling another human’s remains and that means, some time, years ago, he made the ultimate sacrifice for his nation.
For a modern-day take on the Vietnam War, POWs/MIAs and Adventure Backpackers trekking into the war-ravaged jungles of Asia see: http://peteralanlloyd.com/back-part-2/backpackers-meet-the-vietnam-war-back-screenplay-finally-finished/
And for POWs left behind in Laos:
© Peter Alan Lloyd
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