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(Photo: Photo courtesy of Eric Gutbrod). U.S. Army Spc. Laura Gutbrod of Boonton is on a 35-day mission to southern Laos, part of a 20-person team looking for unexploded ordinance and any evidence of MIAs from the Vietnam War.
Her Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA) recovery team is going over the same terrain U.S. forces bombed or traversed 50 years ago.
“Even finding one piece of tiny bone means something,” Gutbrod said in a telephone interview with the Daily Record.
American remains are transferred to an official laboratory in Hawaii for identification by forensic anthropologists, according to the DPAA, which was activated Jan. 30 and dispatches 23 such teams at sites all over the world where Americans have fought and fallen.
“They run a DNA test,” Gutbrod explained. “Once they find a match, they’re able to cross that person’s name off an MIA list, and call the family, because that person is considered found. That way, the family knows their family member passed away.”
She called the work rewarding and an example of the military pledge to leave no soldier behind.
“It’s something that I never expected I’d be able to do in a place I never expected to be,” said Gutbrod, who is stationed with the 25th Infantry Division at the Schofield Barracks in Honolulu.
Until April 9, however, her team, and two others, are sharing a makeshift 60-tent base camp at 9,000 feet, some two hours outside the city of Pakse and 17 miles away from the recovery site they’re working. Each day, she said, they fly by helicopter into the mountains and land at about 18,000 feet, after which they hike down 3,000 feet to the site.
The hiking is intense, she said, especially since the real-feel temperature in Laos is about 105 degrees this time of year.
“It is hot as can be here. There are mountains everywhere,” said Gutbrod, who is digging and working the team’s radio communications.
Presently, Laos is not in its rainy season, which runs, according to travelfish.org, from May to October.
At this time, the 23 American recovery teams, which use standard archaeology methods, include one underwater and one mountaineering team, according to Maj. Natasha Waggoner of the DPAA. Personnel on each team can include a forensic anthropologist, team leader and sergeant, linguist, medic, life support technician, communications technician, forensic photographer, explosive ordnance disposal technician, and mortuary affairs specialists.
Accounting missions began in January 1973, long before the accounting agency came into being, Waggoner said. Over the years, they’ve identified 1,983 MIAs. Currently, Gutbrod’s team is one of 16 teams conducting operations in Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, South Korea as well as Vanuatu and Palau, the latter two being island nations in the Pacific Ocean.
As of now, there are 302 missing Americans in Laos, 1,269 in Vietnam, and 51 in Cambodia, according to the DPAA. An American POW/MIA investigator, stationed full time in Vientiane, the capital of Laos, pursues leads. The investigator has interviewed some 80 Vietnamese witnesses with helpful information, and, for 10 years, combed through pictures, videos, and other documents concerning U.S. POWs and aircraft wreckages in Lao archives.
“We offer a special thanks to all the governments whose efforts and dedication have enabled DPAA to further progress in achieving the fullest possible accounting of our missing,” Waggoner said. “We rely heavily on those cooperative relationships.”
According to Gutbrod, Lao government representatives are with her team whenever it goes to its recovery site.
“They’re there to survey,” she said, “just to make sure that we’re not doing something we’re not supposed to be doing here.”
When her team found a live 500-pound, cylinder-shaped American cluster bomb, partially above the surface of the ground, its explosive ordnance technicians roped off the area.
“A couple of days later, Lao officials came and took care of it,” she said.
Several search accounts of the Laos landscape reveal a 250- or 500-pound UXO (unexploded ordinance) can be destroyed onsite, but anything larger must be moved before detonation so it does not impact any nearby villages.
From 1964 to 1973, the U.S. dropped more than two million tons of ordnance on Laos during 580,000 bombing missions, according to Legacies of War, a U.S.-based educational and advocacy organization devoted to addressing the impact of the Vietnam War-era on Laos.
At the time, the Americans were trying to cut off traffic along the Ho Chi Minh Trail, used by both sides during the war to transport weaponry, and support the Royal Lao Government against the ultimately triumphant Communist Pathet Lao.
Legacies of War reports 270 million cluster bombs were dropped on Laos during the Vietnam War. Up to 80 million never detonated, leaving the country even today with a dangerous landscape that makes the cultivation of farmland nigh on impossible. Since the war, some 20,000 people have been killed or hurt by unexploded ordnance.
For nine years, the U.S. spent $13.3 million per day (in 2013 dollars) bombing Laos, according to Legacies of War. Between 1995 and 2013, it spent $3.2 million per year clearing unexploded ordinance.
The mission in Laos is the first for Gutbrod, who joined the military for practical and inspirational reasons. Joining provides steady work in an economy where that’s hard to come by, she said, but she also feels like she’s carrying on a family tradition.
Her cousin served in the Navy, she said, and an uncle recently retired from the Air Force. But she joined the Army because of her grandfather—John Gutbrod, 93, of Surf City, an Army veteran.
“My grandfather actually jumped on D-Day,” she said. “He spent most of his time in World War II throughout France and parts of Italy. After hearing all the stories he told me throughout the years, going into the Army seemed like something worthwhile to me.”
This summer, Gutbrod said, she’ll visit her family in Boonton for the first time in three years. She hasn’t seen a family member in a year.
“My grandfather taught me that you can go through hell and back again,” she said, “but family is always there.”
Lorraine Ash: 973-428-6660; firstname.lastname@example.org