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.

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Despite the chaos of the wreckage, the extensive scavenging and the acidic soil eating away at bone and steel for nearly four decades, the team had culled more than enough evidence to close Site 1303. When we decamped from Laos, the jungle would creep in and gradually obscure the drama of loss and restoration that had unfolded here.

What little remained of Bat Masterson was carefully labeled and placed in 26 small plastic bags, each keyed to the place and date of its discovery. Other artifacts, consisting of personal effects and material evidence, filled another 75 bags. The entire yield fit neatly into a black Pelican briefcase, which Goodman secured with two brass padlocks and kept in her possession for the long journey home. To guarantee the integrity of these investigations, JPAC follows a strict protocol, maintaining a chain of custody from field to laboratory, as if the evidence had to withstand courtroom scrutiny.

Goodman's Pelican case stayed within reach on a crowded military flight from Pattaya, Thailand, where we joined other teams returning from operations in Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand. It had been a good season for some, indifferent for others. Three or four MIA investigations would be resolved as a result of their work, and there would also be new missions: members of one investigative team told me that they had pinpointed ten new sites for excavation in Laos alone. Other projects in the region, and from World War II, would keep JPAC busy for years to come.

Critics might wonder if the elaborate effort is worth it. At a time when the United States is engaged in war on two fronts and the military is sorely pressed for resources, was this exercise an extravagance?

Goodman had heard this question before. "We owe it to the people who made the ultimate sacrifice," she said. "There were bad feelings about what happened in Vietnam. The people who went there never got the recognition they deserved. We owe it to them and to their families to make this extra effort now, as a kind of reparation."

After a 20-hour flight through darkness, nearly 200 bleary-eyed soldiers, marines, sailors, airmen and civilians staggered off the plane into the blinding afternoon sun at Hawaii’s Hickam Air Force Base. There were no brass bands and no honor guards to mark this homecoming. Those ceremonies would come later, after the findings from our recovery team—and those from others—had been subjected to rigorous scientific review in the Central Identification Laboratory. Only then could identifications be confirmed, families briefed and remains sent home for burial.

In the meantime, Goodman and the other anthropologists signed over their evidence to the laboratory, which triggered the meticulous review process. While she wrote her excavation report, the rest of the case was analyzed by other lab specialists and finally sent for outside review.

"There's peer review at every step," explained Thomas Holland, the lab's scientific chief, who collects the outside reviews and scrutinizes them. "That's when I write the final report, which makes the identification and spells out the justification for it. By that time the case has to be airtight."

Depending on the quality of the evidence and the complexity of the case, a review can take up to a year. This can be excruciating for families who have already endured so much—but it would be even worse if the process concluded with a case of mistaken identity. "We don't want any doubts," said Holland. "Our goal is to make certain that there is never another unknown soldier."

It seems unlikely that there ever will be, given the forensic techniques available today. Last year alone, the Central Identification Laboratory resolved a hundred cases, almost evenly divided between Vietnam and World War II. Some were identified by DNA sampling but most by dental records, still the most reliable means of providing a name for the dead.

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