Searching for fallen airmen in local German forest

RHEINLAND-PFALZ, Germany — Army Staff Sgt. Ryszard Tella, left, and Air Force Staff Sgt. Alceve Lawrence, both from the Joint Prisoners of War/Missing in Action Accounting Command, shovel dirt from a sifting station during the last day of digging during their mission July 28. The mission of the JPAC is to achieve the fullest possible accounting of all Americans missing as a result of the nation's past conflicts. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Benjamin Wilson)

RHEINLAND PFALZ, Germany -- Tucked in the dense woods of a typically quiet, remote German logging trail is a flurry of activity. A small bulldozer scoops dirt into a wooden box large enough to be a closet, whereby more dirt is transferred into smaller buckets. These buckets are manually hauled to sifters, where people meticulously examine every rock, piece of tree bark and remnants of metal that remain after dirt is shaken out.

What's turned this quiet logging trail into a laborious science project was a life-changing historical event for millions across the globe World War II. The people digging in the dirt were members of the Joint Prisoners of War/Missing in Action Accounting Command, whose mission is to account for Americans lost during past U.S. conflicts.

The JPAC team spent several weeks combing over the wooded area to search for the remains of two airmen who perished in a World War II aircraft crash 66 years ago. The team consists of both civilians and servicemembers of various specialties, including an archeologist and anthropologist, photographers, explosive ordnance disposal specialists and others.

Army Staff Sgt. Jesse Eggen, an infantry soldier serving as a JPAC team sergeant, has been part of JPAC for two and a half years.

"I re-enlisted for it," Eggen said. "I was in Iraq. I was getting ready to get out of the Army, and my first sergeant brought this mission to my attention. I thought it would be a real humbling job - a real good experience for any American to do - and it has ended up being one of the best jobs I've ever had."

Air Force Staff Sgt. Jesse Shipps, a photographer with JPAC, shoveled dirt into buckets in what's known as the "sweat box" when he wasn't taking photos of findings. The sweat box is the large wooden box where dirt is deposited before it is sifted - this ensures the excavation site is examined for remains systematically.

"After the first few days, it's pretty much ground hog day and you know the routine so all you've got to do is unload the tools and start digging where you left off," Shipps said. "Once we get on the site, we follow the anthropologist and they tell us where to dig, how to dig, how far down to dig."

But the disheveled forest and dirt-coated clothes aren't the only evidence the group needs to know it worked hard. Evidence of a job well done is truly unearthed when families are presented with remains of their loved ones, say JPAC team members.

"It's a really important job because it gives families a piece of mind that no matter what, we're going to return their brothers, fathers, sisters, mothers, uncles or whoever to their families," Shipps said.

"When we do get lucky and are able to identify the soldiers that we're finding, we're bringing closure to the families," Eggen said. "There's a lot of Americans that have no idea if they'll see any part of their loved ones again and we're able to bring that to them."

During the excavation, the team recovered various pieces of life support equipment, plane wreckage, the eagle standard for a pilot's hat, a revolver holster, bits of leather from boots and gloves, a dog tag chain, bullets and multiple other remnants confirming historical references that a crash occurred in that exact location. While finding these treasures was exciting, the real goal was to find remains of missing airmen. Information about any recovered remains cannot be included in this story to preserve the integrity of the mission and pay due respects once potential evidence is identified, JPAC members said.

This site was the third location for the team's mission in Germany, but the first aircraft recovery site for Hedy Justus, an anthropologist with the JPAC team.

"The other missions I've done in Germany were actually burial sites - one of which was in a cemetery and one was a burial on a private property," she said. "This one is different for me simply because it's a plane crash."

Whether a gravesite or that of an aircraft crash, the mission remains just as important to the JPAC members who travel the globe in search of America's POWs and MIAs.

"I think the most important thing about my job is the affect that we have not only the families of the people we lost in the past, but also the current members serving our country," Justus said. "Not only can we bring closure to the families of the people we've lost, but we also can give a certain amount of assurance to our people who are serving us today, that if something happens that they will be brought home. That puts them at ease and it also helps their families."

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