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Lost Over Laos

Scientists and soldiers combine forensics and archaeology to search for pilot Bat Masterson, one of 88,000 Americans missing in action from recent wars.

"Hey, Zib," he said. "What is the name of the guy you are looking for?"

"Michael John Masterson," she answered.

"I think I have his ID tag here."

Goodman came bounding over, examined the dog tag and rendered a verdict: "Looks like Chris is buying the beers tonight," she said, setting off a ripple of cheers down the hillside. Everyone crowded around for a look at the tag, which was stamped with Masterson's particulars. Goodman also noticed that the tag was bent, as the insole had been, most likely from the impact of his crash.

For Christophe Paul, a French native who joined the Army in 1999 and became a U.S. citizen in 2005, this moment of discovery fulfilled a dream. "I have been fascinated by archaeology since I was a little boy when my mother took me to see a King Tut exhibit in Paris. Now here I am doing it! I was so happy to find this ID, so we can get this guy home again."

Like Paul and other members of the armed forces, Masterson had worn two dog tags. Air Force Tech. Sgt. Tommy Phisayavong discovered the second one, bent like the first, in the screening station a few days later. Like Paul, Phisayavong had immigrated to the United States and become a citizen, but his journey had been torturous by comparison. Born and raised in Vientiane, the capital of Laos, he fled the country in 1978 after three years of the Pathet Lao regime. He was 13 at the time. He crossed the Mekong River to Thailand under cover of darkness, accompanied by his 10-year-old brother. They joined an uncle in a refugee camp there, and one by one, other members of the family crossed the river. Eventually, they made their way to the United States, where they settled in California.

"I never thought I'd see Laos again," said Phisayavong, who joined the Air Force in 1985 and was eventually assigned to JPAC as a language specialist. Now a veteran of many recovery missions, he sees Laos all the time, acting as interpreter and cultural envoy among team members, Lao officials and Hmong villagers like the ones who trudged several kilometers to work at our site each day.

Sifting dirt with the Hmong, I often wondered what they thought of our sudden appearance among them, this ragtag crew of Americans in sunglasses and muddy jeans, arriving in a swirl of dust whipped up by helicopters. I wondered what they thought of our raucous music and our tepid enthusiasm for the steamed bee larvae they thoughtfully provided as a morning snack. Most of all, I wondered how the Hmong regarded our compulsion to comb through the earth for the scanty remains of a man who had been resting here for so long, seemingly forgotten.

I was never able to speak to the Hmong about these things because Lao officials, still nervous about foreign contact with the tribesmen, discouraged conversation. But Tommy Phisayavong provided some insight, based on his own long experience in the territory. "It may seem a little strange to them that we go to these lengths to find people," he admitted. "You know, most of them believe that when you die, you stay where you are and that's that. We try to explain why it's important for us to bring the dead back and put them to rest. We've done enough of these missions over the years that I think maybe they understand that it's part of our ritual."

Our own rituals of digging, screening and sorting began to pall after almost a month, the buckets yielding progressively less as the excavation approached the edge of the jungle. "That's just what you want," said Goodman. "You don't find much at the beginning. You find a lot in the middle. And it tapers off at the end. That means we've been digging in the right place."

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