First, I thought I had posted this the other day. Then again, I thought I had previously written about this topic, but apparently it hadn’t made it beyond the idea stage. When we were stationed in Hawaii we knew of a number of smaller, specialized units, one of which is officially named the Joint Task Force–Full Accounting (JTF-FA) and Central Identification Laboratory, Hawaii (CILHI). It is commonly referred to by the acronym of CILHI (pronounced like Sill Hi). Although there are some military personnel assigned and a friend was the commander for a couple of years, the staff is predominantly civilian experts. You can read more details at http://www.vietvet.org/jtffainf.htm but I’ll explain.
A Joint Task Force means all military services are involved and it is especially fitting for JTF Full Accounting. The remains of thousands of American service members are still missing and over the years, sites have been discovered in some pretty remote paces. The term “leave no man behind” has existed for a long time and it extends to the idea of bringing home the bodies of those who have served their country. With advanced forensics and the amazing capabilities of the Laboratory those can be used to either positively identify someone or at least greatly narrow the possibility. For example, if a plane from WW II was last heard from over a certain area in a mountainous region, and the Task Force is notified of wreckage being found in that same region, a team can go in to look. Since airplanes can disintegrate and/or burn upon impact, there may be little left after decades of growth taking hold. The staff intensely studies equipment and uniforms from every era of our military which is why the smallest item or fragment can be used to help with identification. In a case like this, if no human remains are found, they still might be able to identify the aircraft. All sites are handled in a similar manner to an archeological dig and the teams often work in extreme environments such as jungles or mountainous areas.
Information about potential sites come from many sources. Local stories are frequently passed down about military men who were quickly buried or a crash site that has been overgrown. At other times, an area is being cleared for building or a family member has done research and passes along what they know so the team can consult their database. Several months ago, my husband taught classes to some of the JTF members because they want to have internal capability of accessing underwater sites. He was of course thrilled with the opportunity and the team appreciated the fact he was familiar with their work.
Losing a loved one is never easy. Not knowing where the loved one is adds yet another dimension to the grief. And even though the service member/service members are not returned until sometimes decades later, in almost all cases it is appreciated by the family.