Medina Journal-Register — MEDINA — Efforts to search for, recover and repatriate the remains of U.S. servicemen whose bodies are unaccounted for from the battlefields of war was a difficult, but fulfilling, experience for the pair of Medina residents who served in the Central Identification Laboratory.
Medina native Dr. Ann Webster Bunch, a certified forensic anthropologist, and her husband, retired Army Lt. Col. Steven Bunch, both served for eight years in a unit now known as the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command. The command’s mission is to search for the more than 83,000 Americans still missing from conflicts dating back to World War II.
“It’s a problem that we haven’t accounted for all of our war dead,” Bunch said Monday during a Veterans Day presentation at GCC Medina. “As President Reagan said about Vietnam ... the end to America’s involvement (in the war) cannot come before we’ve achieved the fullest possible accounting of our soldiers.”
In their roles within CIL, Bunch, who served as the Officer in Charge for his 12-person team; and Webster Bunch, who served as her team’s cilian anthropologist, each went on more than a dozen missions to locations in Asia and the Pacific.
“It’s a partnership — research that serves the nation using forensic recovery for identification,” Webster Bunch said.
Bunch highlighted a 1999 mission to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, a nation still technically at war with the United States, in his presentation. He described the effort to locate the remains of 457 members of the 23rd Infantry Regiment killed during the fighting retreat that occurred during the Battle of the Ch’ongh’on River, as a “chessmatch” with the North Koreans.
“There’s still a friction going on at the human level,” said Bunch, referencing both the nine days his group was held by the DRPK — another day in captivity would have made them officially prisoners of war — at the end of the trip; and a fight that ensued after the Americans replaced a tape of dogs barking Christmas carols with Metallica as the music on their bus.
The unease continued in the field. Bunch said he had to become familiar with the battle, recreating the fight to ensure the search was heading to the right location.
“We had to reconfirm and hope the Koreans were taking us to the right place,” Bunch said. They eventually found teeth at the battlefield and more remains at a burial site.
After speaking with “witnesses” of the battle or the burial of the soldiers, the CIL teams set up a recovery effort similar to most historical digs.
Webster Bunch described an effort to recover the remains of two men lost in a B-52 that crashed near Hanoi during the 1972 Operation Linebacker II bombings of North Vietnamese targets. She said there are key differences from that type of archeology due to time and physical restraints.
“When we’re in recovery mode it can be precise as most archeology sites,” Webster Bunch said. The area that the remains of the two men, the B-52’s tail gunner and navigator, was believed to be at the bottom of a pond that formed in the crater of the crash. “The walls of the dig began to shift ... it started to threaten our safety,” Webster Bunch said.
With each mission lasting only six weeks, it took two separate trips to reach the mission’s goal. Webster Bunch said the dig uncovered pieces of the plane, an intact parachute and survival vest, pages of a prayer book “opened to the 23rd psalm”, and the arm of the tail gunner’s glasses in addition to bone fragments.
“It’s jarring, these (findings) speak to that there’s a person there,” Webster Bunch said.
After the remains are respectfully identified and collected, they are turned over to the host country before being released to the American lab. Using blood samples from the tail gunner’s family, his remains were positively identified using mitochondrial DNA. An extensive internal peer review of the findings is completed before the identified servicemen’s family is made aware of the search, recovery and return of the remains.
In the case of the B-52 dig, Webster Bunch said the family of the tail gunner didn’t accept the findings as providing closure because of the bond they had made with the navigator’s family. The search found a rank insignia that could have belonged to him, but no match could be made.
Bunch said that positive identifications aren’t guaranteed, as most of his missions did not end with a conclusive results. But there is a feeling of joy when their work can bring closure for a family.
“After so many missions, you see their faces and read the reports written at the time,” Bunch said. “Because I had been in the field and served in combat, it brings it home. You make a connection.”
The path to the mission was an unexpected one for both Webster Bunch and Bunch. She was a faculty member at the University of Kentucky seeking a more stable career that used the knowledge she gained in her PhD studies. He was an airborne parachuter who was considering becoming an Arab linguist before getting the offer to join the unit.
Since leaving the unit more than a decade ago, both have worked in academia. Bunch is an adjunct professor of philosophy and ethics at GCC; Webster Bunch taught forensics and criminal justice classes at SUNY Oswego before moving back home to be a professor at the College at Brockport.
Currently, JPAC has more than 450 military and civilian personnel working in four main permanent detachments.
Under the Obama Administration, the goals of the command and its capacity for action have greatly increased. JPAC broke ground last year on a new building at its Oahu, Hawaii headquarters; an expansion of the command was announced earlier this year at Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska.
“There’s a new energy, but more pressure on the scientists,” Webster Bunch said of the new goal of 200 identifications each year.
Bunch said that the families of those who died in the same conflicts have pushed for similar efforts. The Japanese and South Koreans now maintain similar unites; Indonesia is working towards establishing their own unit.
With advancements in the science used to identify and match human remains, and the military’s commitment to returning all those who fought back home, there is hope that there will not be unaccounted for servicemen in the future.
“We could submit things smaller than a gram and get DNA,” Webster Bunch said. “The only problem is preservation of the remains, if the organic material is lost.”
With forensics, there’s always a chance to succeed. On one mission, Webster Bunch was part of a team searching for the remains of a soldier who by all accounts was “vaporized” when a grenade exploded the anti-personnel mine he was sitting on.
Although that search was difficult, 16 teeth and a partial denture were found in a bowl-shaped crater that a Vietnamese witness said was his burial site. Using dental x-rays taken before the war, he was positively identified.
“There’s always something left,” Webster Bunch said.
Contact reporter Jim Krencik
at 798-1400, ext. 6327.