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Mission: Bring home the missing

May 30, 2006|by DON AINES

CHAMBERSBURG, PA.

At the end of the Vietnam War, 2,583 U.S. military and civilian personnel were listed as missing in action, a number that has decreased to 1,805 as of May 1, according to the National League of POW/MIA Families.

One of the 778 bodies recovered over the more than 30 years since that war ended was an Air Force pilot whose remains were recovered in 1996 by an interservice team that included a young second lieutenant named Michael Zahuranic.

Now a major and the deputy director of contracting at Letterkenny Army Depot, Zahuranic was a team member in two recovery and identification missions to Laos in November 1996 and May 1997.

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Even in peacetime, the search for a missing person can be daunting. Hundreds of people and dozens of aircraft took part in a five-day search of a mountainous area of southwestern Franklin County in April before finding the wreckage of a small airplane and the body of its pilot.

In the case of those missing in Southeast Asia during the war, the obstacles were and remain formidable.

Air Force, Marine, Navy and Army pilots, whether in fixed-wing aircraft or helicopters, often were shot down over mountainous enemy territory covered by triple-canopy jungle. Ground troops would disappear during firefights, making the search for the wounded, killed or captured hazardous.

The passage of years has not made searches any less complicated as jungle growth obscures crash sites and witnesses die or their memories fade.

Zahuranic, the guest speaker at Monday's Memorial Day ceremony in Chambersburg, spoke about the 30-day missions to Laos where, he said, many of the missing were pilots whose aircraft were lost in bombing missions along the Ho Chi Minh Trail, a network of trails and roads along that country's border with Vietnam used by North Vietnam to funnel personnel and equipment to South Vietnam.

"We flew from Thailand to Laos and took helicopters to the base camp," he said of the 10-man teams. The teams consisted of members from the other armed services, as well as an anthropologist to assist in identifying human remains, he said.

"A team is actually sent out several months beforehand to investigate" potential crash or burial sites, Zahuranic said. An excavation team, such as the ones he was on, is then sent out to excavate, he said.

"It's very overgrown. It's pretty amazing what the site looks like when you get there and 30 days later," Zahuranic said. Over a wide area, vegetation and about 6 inches of earth were removed with the dirt being sifted for bone fragments, teeth or artifacts that can aid in the identification of the missing serviceman.

"It's very tedious, but it's well worth the effort," said Zahuranic, who at the time was assigned to the 54th Quartermaster Co. Mortuary Affairs in Fort Lee, Va. Laotian government officials and workers were with the team the whole time, he said.

The effort from his first mission yielded the remains of an Air Force pilot shot down in 1966. The man's remains were taken to the military's Central Identification Laboratory in Hawaii, identified from dental records and dog tags and returned to his family for proper burial, Zahuranic said.

"It was almost 30 years to the day that he was shot down that we found him," Zahuranic said.

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