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Teammates honored to recover, bring home POW/MIA service members

By Silvia Klatman, PSNS & IMF Public Affairs | Sept. 21, 2018

BREMERTON, Wash. —

The third Friday in September is a time to reflect on the suffering and sacrifices of prisoners of war and those who are still missing in action.

POW/MIA Recognition Day is meaningful to the loved ones of service members whose status remains unknown, but it’s also significant to those who’ve worked for the command responsible for locating missing service members. The command responsible for location is the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA, formerly known as Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command or JPAC).

Some Puget Sound Naval Shipyard & Intermediate Maintenance Facility teammates have had the honor of serving on DPAA missions.

John Ripps, electrical safety program manager and safety specialist, was brought on as a team medic in the summer of 2008, but he points out that everyone’s duties went beyond their title.

“Each member provides a particular set of skills and training,” Ripps explained noting that compatriots from the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines worked side-by-side.

“But regardless of that, no matter if you are the team leader, team medic, interpreter or work with explosive ordnance disposal, your main job is a worker, a digger, or a sifter.”

Ripps’s interest in DPAA was piqued early in his naval career when he learned of their valuable mission. Joining the team was eye-opening given the amount of time and logistics needed to bring missing service members home.

“I was naïve to the fact of how in-depth it was,” Ripps said. The complexity of locating and repatriating a missing service member is extraordinary, and the number of service members who are considered MIA is sobering.  

More than 160 service members have been identified this fiscal year, with roughly 82,000 still unaccounted for. To locate a service member, researchers first narrow down possible locations based on historical accounts, interviews with locals and numerous other factors.  International partnerships are formed based on need, and a team of experts is assembled. DNA samples from family members must be matched with the remains. The number of tasks to undertake a mission can be daunting.

Despite the difficulties, Ripps notes, “Being part of DPAA and traveling overseas with the sole mission of ‘find them and bring them home’ was amazing and without a doubt the absolute highlight of my naval career.  Without question, my highest honor.”

For visual information specialist Thiep Nguyen, serving as a forensic photographer from 2009 to 2014 in Southeast Asia was also personal.

“Being the son of a Vietnamese refugee, this was an opportunity that held a lot of meaning to me and my family,” Nguyen said. “It was a way for me to not only give back to the United States, where so many opportunities and blessings have come for me and my family, but also as a way to understand my lost culture and my family’s story of struggle.”

One mission that touched Nguyen deeply was searching for special forces operator John Jones, who was killed when the North Vietnamese took “Hickory Hill” in Khe Sanh.  Accompanying the team were two former special forces members, including Medal of Honor recipient Sergeant Major Jon Cavaiani, who was captured on Hickory Hill and was held in Hanoi as a prisoner of war. One of the photos Nguyen snapped on this mission was of Cavaiani handing out candy to children who were descendants of Montagnard soldiers Cavaiani led during the war

The recovery team was successful in locating Jones’ remains, and he was given a funeral with full military honors. Cavaiani attended Jones’s funeral then died of cancer about 18 months later.

“That mission brought some sort of closure to them,” Nguyen said. “It made me realize how much the missions meant.”

Jason Kaye, Visual Information Design Center technical imaging lead, also worked as a forensic photographer from 2009 to 2014. He notes that historians and researchers are working behind the scenes before a recovery even starts. This is combined with efforts from investigative teams, anthropologists, linguists, planners, logisticians and a wide array of other experts. When recoveries are successful, the lab work begins for identification.

“The work is time consuming, physically demanding and sometimes frustrating,” said Kaye. “But at the end of the day it is absolutely worth it to find the fallen and bring closure to their families.”

Kaye participated with missions in Belgium, Germany, Laos, Papua New Guinea and Vietnam all with unique challenges. One that sticks out for him is a World War II aircraft crash in Papua, New Guinea.

“We base camped in the jungle at about 8,000 feet of elevation for 37 days,” Kaye explained. “The crash site was in steep terrain. The terrain was challenging, the living conditions were primitive and the weather never seemed to give us a break.”

“There were even a few earthquakes,” he continued. “But at the end of the day, it is absolutely worth it to find the fallen.”

Those who served with DPAA understand how important it is that loved ones have personal closure and also how vital it is for our nation. 

“America made a promise back then and she stands firm in ensuring that promise is kept,” Ripps points out. “We will exhaust every resource available to find you and bring you home.”

For more information on POW/MIA recovery, visit: dpaa.mil/