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Worldwide CILHI Mission To Bring Home Missing Heroes

Quartermaster Professional Bulletin
Summer 1999
(Images are thumbnailed, click on image to see full sized photo)

CPT Todd Heussner         Dr. Thomas Holland



Vietnam veterans pay their
final respects to fallen heroes

On the hallowed ground of Arlington National Cemetery lie many thousands of reminders of the price of freedom. Each headstone represents someone who made the ultimate sacrifice so that others may enjoy the benefits of freedom. There are many thousands more who have yet to return home to their loved ones, families and the country that they fought to protect. Sadly, they lay waiting in fields and forests around the world, from jungles that still echo with the cries of anguish to the depths of the ocean beyond the reach of light. They lay waiting for their final trip home and their final bugle call. Thankfully, they do not wait in vain. The Central Identification Laboratory, Hawaii (CILHI) is ever vigilant in bringing home America’s missing heroes.

The CILHI is the field-operating element of the Casualty and Memorial Affairs Operations Center, US Total Army Personnel Command (PERSCOM). The CILHI’s mission is threefold:


Remains of missing service members return
to US soil with full military honors

  • Search for, recover and identify remains of unaccounted for American military personnel, certain American civilian personnel and certain allied personnel from World War II, the Korean War, Southeast Asia, the Cold War and other conflicts and contingencies.
  • Conduct humanitarian missions as directed by Department of the Army.
  • Provide technical assistance in these matters as requested by the appropriate geographic commander in chief (CINC).

The CILHI’s mission is worldwide in scope, ranging from the steamy rainforests of South America to the arid deserts of the Middle East, from the icy glaciers of Tibet to the tropical jungles of Papua New Guinea. In recent years much of the CILHI’s emphasis has focused on the former battlefields of the Vietnam conflict – Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. However, with the collapse of the former Soviet Bloc, CILHI’s personnel now have unprecedented access to sites involving Cold War losses. Also, recent breakthroughs in negotiations with North Korea are allowing increased access to more than 8,000 losses associated with the Korean War. This increased access could lead to the return of many more service members to the soil that they fought so gallantly to defend.

The CILHI presently has 177 military and civilian personnel working in close coordination under the command of a Quartermaster colonel. The unit is divided into four major sections: Command and Support, Search and Recovery Operations, Casualty Data Analysis and the Forensic Laboratory.

Search Teams Travel the World


In many cases, recovery sites
are accessible only by helicopter

The Search and Recovery Operations section maintains 13 standing teams. These teams travel the world conducting surveys and excavations of crash and burial sites associated with the loss of US personnel. Forensic anthropologists from CILHI’s scientific staff ensure the scientific integrity of the methods used to recover remains and material evidence from excavation sites. Each search and recovery team consists of a team commander (branch-qualified Quartermaster captain), the recovery team leader (anthropologist), the team’s noncommissioned officer in charge (NCOIC) at the rank of sergeant first class (SFC), mortuary affairs specialists at the ranks of staff sergeant/specialist (SSG/SPC), a Special Forces or Ranger-qualified medic and a team photographer. An explosive ordnance disposal technician, a linguist and an aircraft wreckage analyst may augment the team.

The team commander is responsible for the team’s training, preparation, safe deployment, operation and redeployment. Also, the team commander is the senior person on the ground for interfacing with foreign government officials, ambassadors and media personnel.


Vietnamese assist CILHI team
members excavating a crash site

The recovery team leader or anthropologist is responsible for all aspects of an excavation. This technical expert directs the activities of the team on site in recovery of missing service members. The team sergeant ensures that the team deploys with the required equipment and that all team members operate in a safe and efficient manner. If the team fails to bring the required equipment to Laos, for example, getting supplies in the jungles is difficult. The mortuary affairs specialists assist in establishing the site, operating the site and evaluating any material believed to be remains. The medic is essential when far from any medical facilities. He is responsible for field sanitation, treating team members when they become ill or injured, and for treating local workers hired to assist in excavation operations.

Since 1992, the CILHI has conducted extensive recovery operations in Southeast Asia under the operational control of Joint Task Force-Full Accounting (JTF-FA). Congress mandated JTF-FA to achieve the fullest possible accounting of US service members whose remains were not recovered after the Vietnam War. Southeast Asia missions to Vietnam and Laos usually take place six times a year with six teams deploying to Vietnam and three teams deploying to Laos. Typically, one team will deploy to Cambodia about twice each year. To date, the CILHI has conducted 54 rotations to Vietnam and more than 24 rotations to Laos. The teams remain in the field 30-35 days per rotation.

Increased Access


Workers filer soil through 1/4-inch wire screen
to ensure recovery of all evidence from site

Recovery operations in North Korea began in 1996 and have increased to five recovery missions for 1998. Increased access will help resolve the more than 8,000 cases on file at the CILHI. Other worldwide recoveries are conducted as resources allow. In the past years, such recoveries have included missions to Australia, Russia, Tibet, China, Germany, Netherlands, England, France, Czech Republic, South Korea, Papua New Guinea, Vanuatu and many other islands in the South Pacific.

The CILHI personnel are routinely deployed for more than 200 days per year in some of the most environmentally challenging areas of the world. Recently a team deployed to Tibet to recover the frozen remains of airmen killed during World War II. At the other extreme, a team deployed to the jungles of Nicaragua to excavate the wreckage of a B-24 aircraft that crashed in the early 1940s. Operating in these extreme climates under austere conditions requires soldiers who are physically fit, mentally tough and tremendously resilient. This is not an assignment for the faint of heart.

Typical Mission Cycle

The typical mission cycle starts with the selection of a case within the Casualty Data Section’s archives. This section maintains the personal medical and dental records of deceased US service members whose remains have not been recovered and identified. The section also provides the teams with detailed analysis of the events that preceded and followed the loss of a missing service member by researching reports, official duty logs, eyewitness reports and local witness testimony. These packets are the starting points for planning and preparing for a recovery operation.

Missions in Three Categories

From these reports, the teams determine the equipment and supplies needed for a successful recovery operation. Mission analysis results in the logistical requirements and a detailed mission plan on the recovery methods for excavating the site. Requirements are forwarded to the S4 who ensures that the team is properly equipped and ready to excavate an assigned case.

When operating in Southeast Asia, the teams generally travel on military aircraft. When operating outside of Southeast Asia, the teams generally take commercial flights.

The missions typically fall in one of three categories: Southeast Asia, worldwide, and North Korea. When CILHI teams deploy to Southeast Asia, they fall under the operational control of the JTF-FA. The JTF-FA has executed so many missions to Southeast Asia that the task force has developed a logistical system that is almost foolproof.

Teams go through a predeployment process that makes sure all team members are ready to deploy. The predeployment process includes integrating augmentee service members attached to the teams for a specific mission, screening all members for current vaccinations, mission-specific equipment training, mission briefings, safety briefings and a myriad of other tasks that leave nothing to chance. By the time the teams deploy, they are well trained and ready to execute their assigned missions.

Every Minute Counts


A CILHI team member examines gloves recovered from
an aircraft from an aircraft that crashed in China in 1944

Deploying to Southeast Asia from Hickam Air Force Base, Hawaii, teams make a two-day stop in Pattaya, Thailand, to pick up mission-specific equipment, to palletize equipment and coordinate with the JTF-FA detachment commander. The JTF-FA has a forward presence in Southeast Asia, with detachments in Vietnam, Laos and Thailand. The detachment commanders are branch-qualified lieutenant colonels, responsible for all recovery efforts while the CILHI teams are in their respective countries. Detachment commanders help solve any problems that the CILHI teams may encounter and make sure of all preparation and coordination before a team’s arrival. Commanders make sure that teams do not waste precious time that could otherwise be spent searching for military personnel missing in action (MIAs). When teams have only 30 days in country, every minute counts.

Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia are still communist countries. Needless to say, communist workers are not accustomed to an “American pace.” Once the teams land in Vietnam, either in Hanoi, Da Nang or Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon), the team members are met by Vietnamese counterparts who escort them to the province for CILHI’s mission. Once in the province, the team meets with provincial, district and local officials to determine the local rules and lay the foundation for the excavation.

Interviewing Witnesses

After these meetings, each team travels to the excavation site to interview witnesses. The witnesses are usually people who have firsthand knowledge of the site. It is fascinating to talk with people who fought against the US or witnessed fighting. The team compares their stories with the facts provided by the CILHI Casualty Data Analysis section.

At an aircraft crash site, for example, the anthropologist and team commander ask both open-ended and point-specific questions about when the aircraft went down, what the aircraft looked like, what the Americans associated with the aircraft looked like, and what events led to and immediately followed the incident.


A forensic odontologist examines dental
remains to try to identify a service member

If the team is at a “ground loss,” questions are asked to obtain information about the burial location and incident as well as to determine the credibility of a witness. If the account of a witness is close to what is known of the incident, the team travels to the site to see how many local workers need to help excavate, determine the site’s layout and estimate the site’s size in square meters.

Once the team has a good idea of the site’s dimensions, the negotiation phase of the operation begins. When excavating a site in Vietnam, the recovery team and the team’s Vietnamese counterparts must agree on a compensation price for the land used during an excavation. During negotiations, the team commander must ensure that the US government receives a fair and equitable return on the investment. Negotiators make offers and counteroffers until they agree.


A dental technician takes X-rays to compare
to a missing service member’s dental records

After working out the financial details, the team goes to the site and begins excavation under the direction of the recovery team leader, the anthropologist. The excavation continues until all remains are recovered or until the anthropologist determines that all possibilities of recovery have been exhausted. The teams have three objectives when excavating an aircraft site, for example:

  • First, to recover all or as much of the remains and personal effects of the crew members as possible.
  • Second, to recover enough air crew-related equipment (such as parachute material, equipment or helmet material) to prove that the crew members were or were not in the aircraft when it crashed.
  • Third, to recover material evidence such as identification tags (dog tags) or data plates from the aircraft to positively identify the aircraft to the exclusion of all others. When the site is completed, the anthropologist recommends its closure.

Flying to Work in Helicopters

Laotian and Cambodian recoveries differ from recoveries in Vietnam because the team commander does not engage in land negotiations. A CILHI team arrives in country, moves to a base camp, interviews witnesses, establishes the excavation site and excavates. This is probably the only job in the Army where soldiers fly to work every day in a helicopter. Missions in Cambodia are essentially the same as missions in Laos.

cilhi8_small.jpg (12063 bytes)
CILHI anthropologist take measurements of remains to
determine physical characteristics of the missing individual

Worldwide missions require a great deal more effort by the team commander. On a worldwide mission, the team commander must make all arrangements for a successful mission. This includes determining equipment requirements; getting permission to enter the country, permits to excavate, air movement plans and lodging; meeting with local officials; interviewing witnesses – the list goes on and on. The team commander is responsible for all preparations to support a worldwide mission because no detachment commander lays the groundwork for the team. These missions are both the most challenging and the most rewarding missions at CILHI for the team commander.

After all the coordination, the team moves equipment and personnel by commercial aircraft to the respective country. Upon arrival, the team meets with local officials, makes final coordination and prepares for movement to the recovery site. In some cases, this requires special preparation based on site-specific requirements. For example, one recent excavation took place at 12,800 feet in Irian Jaya (formerly Netherlands New Guinea). The team’s extensive training for the mission included mountaineering and acclimatizing before deployment in an effort to eliminate or reduce some of the environmental factors posed by the site.


A CILHI anthropologist examines
remains by using a scanning electron microscope

On site, the recovery team leader (anthropologist) directs the effort to ensure recovery of every shred of evidence and all remains. The recovery begins with an explosive ordnance disposal (EOD) sweep with a metal detector designed to locate and mark (with colored pin flags) any ordnance and material evidence. The EOD sweep is followed by a surface search to determine the most probable location for recovering remains, such as the cockpit of an airplane.

The anthropologist, in coordination with the team members, assesses any evidence recovered from the surface search. After the anthropologist determines where the excavation will take place, he sets up an archaeological grid system to make a coordinated recovery effort easier. All evidence recovered from the gridded area is marked and tagged to maintain a record of the location of remains and life support material. The information is used to compile a picture of the crash or burial site.

Recovery of All Remains

All soil removed from the excavation area is filtered through quarter-inch wire screen to ensure recovery of all remains and material evidence. The recovery of life support material at a crash site, such as flight suit and uniform fabrics or first-aid kit items, strongly indicates that a service member’s remains may be nearby. When the recovery team stops finding material evidence and has exhausted all possibilities of recovering remains, the anthropologist can recommend closing the site. All recovered remains and personal effects are tagged and returned to the laboratory for analysis and identification.

cilhi10.jpg (61993 bytes)
A CILHI anthropologist measures remains in
an attempt to positively identify a missing service member

North Korea is the newest and most productive country in terms of recovering missing service members. Recent agreements have allowed the CILHI unparalleled access to service members lost during the Korean War. In the past year, the CILHI has deployed 5 recovery teams to North Korea. These teams returned more than 20 sets of remains to the laboratory for identification and ultimately reunification with families that lost US fighting men more than 40 years ago. Teams to North Korea travel through Beijing, China, en route to Pyongyang, North Korea. In Pyongyang, a representative from the Defense Prisoner of War/Missing in Action Office meets the team. The team travels from Pyongyang to a base camp where an excavation will take place. Recovered remains are moved to South Korea.

Once received at CILHI, the remains are accessioned and triaged for identification potential. One of the 16 forensic anthropologists and 2 odontologists (dental X-ray experts) assigned to CILHI attempt to establish individual identities using standard forensic techniques and procedures. During this stage of the process, the scientists examine the remains and may use state-of-the-art computers, a scanning electron microscope and radiological equipment. Although the emerging field of mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) is proving an invaluable tool in the identification process, dental radiographic comparison continues as the mainstay of identification. Dental remains are examined by odontologists who X-ray the remains and then carefully document restorations or unusual characteristics. These findings are compared to a database that contains the dental records of US service members whose remains have not been recovered. The search produces a list of candidates who most closely match the characteristics of the teeth in the laboratory. The odontologist gets the dental records that match from the casualty data section to compare the dental records to the remains.

Simultaneously, one of the forensic anthropologists begins analysis of the skeletal remains. Deliberately working with no prior knowledge of the physical characteristics or even the number of individuals believed to be associated with the case, the anthropologist develops a biological profile for the remains. Typically this includes the numbers of individuals represented, age, sex, stature, and indication of injuries and any anomalies. Once the profile is complete, the anthropologist compares these characteristics with the known, recorded features of the individuals supplied by the Casualty Data Analysis section.

When the analysis is complete, the scientists present their findings to the CILHI’s scientific director, a board-certified forensic anthropologist. The scientific director then combines these findings with the background research provided by casualty data analysts and the results of other investigations, such as wreckage analysis. Viewed within this framework, the scientific director must decide whether or not the evidence will support identification.

If sufficient evidence supports identification, a group of independent, board-certified forensic consultants receive a case file for review. If the consultants concur with the scientific director’s recommendation, the case file is submitted to the appropriate armed service. A representative of the military service contacts the family and arranges to explain the case findings to them.

At this point, the family may have the case file examined by an expert chosen by the family. When the family accepts the final review, the remains associated with the case are transferred to a location selected by the service member’s family for burial. An escort accompanies the remains to the final resting place for burial with full military honors.

The recovery and identification process may take years to complete. Some remains may never be identified. Despite obstacles, the CILHI remains committed to the fullest possible accounting of all service members killed in the defense of their country. The promise is “Not to be forgotten!”

An assignment to CILHI is both challenging and rewarding. The recovery teams deploy to countries throughout the world that most soldiers never get to experience. The austere environments and lack of infrastructure demand soldiers who are highly dedicated and disciplined. The unique requirements of operating in unstructured situations force CILHI’s leaders and soldiers to devise imaginative solutions to unanticipated problems. Thinking outside of the proverbial “box” is not an option: It is a requirement. Do you have what it takes to search the world for America’s missing heroes? Do you have what it takes to be a CILHI soldier?

Do You Have What It Takes?

Branch-qualified Quartermaster captains interested in becoming recovery team leaders can contact the captains’ assignment officer at PERSCOM’s Quartermaster Branch for information about assignment to the CILHI. For enlisted Quartermasters, the CILHI has the following military occupational specialties (MOSs): 92A (Automated Logistical Specialist) at Skill Level 4; 92Y (Unit Supply specialist) at Skill Levels 2, 3 and 4; and 92M (Mortuary Affairs Specialist) at Skill Levels 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5. Soldiers in these MOSs who want to work at the CILHI can contact their PERSCOM assignment managers. For 92A, SFC Washington at DSN 221-9709. For 92Y, SFC Johnson at DSN 221-8294. For 92M, SFC Balfrey at DSN 221-2707. This enlisted CILHI assignment is a three-year tour.


CPT Todd Heussner is a Recovery Team Commander at the Central Identification Laboratory, Hawaii (CILHI), Hickam Air Force Base. He has a bachelor of science degree from Stetson University, DeLand, Florida. A graduate of the Quartermaster Officer Advanced Course, he previously served as Commander, Company A, 701st Main Support Battalion, Kitzingen, Germany.

Dr. Thomas Holland is the Scientific Director of the US Army’s Central Identification Laboratory, Hawaii (CILHI), Hickam Air Force Base. He has a doctorate of anthropology degree from the University of Missouri-Columbia, and he is one of only 57 diplomates of the American Board of Forensic Anthropology.