The Bone Collectors

Even as the body bags roll in from Iraq, a hotshot team of U.S. soldiers and scientists is digging up the jungles of Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, looking for long-dead warriors in a real-life version of the TV series CSI. But are these forensic Rambos involved in a patriotic endeavor—or a sentimental fool’s errand?

(Details, August 2003. Photos: Reuben Cox)

WE ARE DIGGING IN THE DIRT for dead men. Not for flesh or bodies, not for anything that resembles an arm, leg, skull, or pelvis. Those are long gone, carried off in the jaws of wild pigs, baked to dust by the sun, or washed away by monsoons. No, we are looking for the tiniest fragments of humanity. A tooth would be a major find.

The Vietnamese villagers in Ra Ly, 300 miles south of Hanoi, think this remote hilltop is haunted. The anthropologist and the U.S. soldiers who have come halfway around the world to stick their shovels in its red earth consider it a crime scene. They know the When, How, and Who. That’s easy. (May 10, 1967. Bullets and grenades via North Vietnamese Army ambush. Four dead soldiers.)

What they don’t know, exactly, is Where. Sam Connell, a jockishly charming Bostonian, kicks through dry ground, searching for clues. He spots something, bends down, and peels up what looks like a piece of animal hide. It’s the charred husk of a marine’s jungle boot. Its brittle lace is still tied in a perfect bow.

“Another one,” Connell yells. Then, to himself, “Eleven boots.” Connell Ziplocs the boot sole and pushes back his New England Patriots cap.

There were supposed to be only four bodies up here. He has 11 boots. His forehead is burning from the scorching May heat. He takes a fresh pencil and jots on soiled graph paper where he found the sole. If this is a crime scene, Connell’s job is to reconstruct the killings and ID the bodies. If he can find them. To do this he must examine evidence that is older than he is, from a war he barely remembers. Connell, 35, is no soldier; he is an expert in Mayan civilization, more accustomed to digging up 1,000-year old tombs than relatively recent graves like these. But he is here on this isolated ridge in the Truong Son mountains, home to some of the war’s bloodiest fighting, as chief bone collector for the U.S. Army’s Central Identification Laboratory, Hawaii.

CILHI (pronounced sil-high), as it’s known to the acronym-happy Defense Department, is a unit of 250 servicemen and civilians, including 30 forensic anthropologists—the largest team in the world—whose primary function is retrieving bodies from foreign wars. These are the people who identified remains at the Pentagon after 9-11,a camo-clad CSI unit. Considering that some 78,000 bodies are still missing from World War II, 8,100 from the Korean War, and 1,900 from the Vietnam War, CILHI’s work is literally a massive undertaking. Each year, CILHI scours hundreds of old battlefields and crash sites, from the lush jungles of Vietnam and Cambodia to the mountains of Korea and the Sole survivor: After 36 years in the Vietnam jungle, little if anything remains of four soldiers killed in islands of Papua New Guinea. Most sites are dangerous. On a 2001 CILHI mission, seven U.S. servicemen and nine Vietnamese died in a chopper crash. In Vietnam there are tigers, malaria, poisonous vipers, some 5 million dormant land mines, 800,000 unexploded bombs, and rusting bins of Agent Orange.

So far, Case 0676, as Connell’s mission is tagged, has yielded a small arsenal of grenades and 40-mm Howitzer rounds. But what’s really made everyone step back are the boots.

“Things are not adding up,” Connell says, taking a break in the shade under the snapping blue tarp of his command tent.A few yards away,an eight-strong team of military specialists—radio operators, medics, explosives experts— direct 60 laboring villagers. This is the spot where an elderly local woman, making the strenuous 40-minute uphill hike to scavenge for metal, discovered a human bone in 1992. Now a phalanx of skinny local workers pass soil in bucket lines to bamboo A-frames they have erected here on Hill 665,as U.S. military planners named it long ago for its elevation. They spread clumps of dirt on 18 hanging screens, and kids as young as 14 break it apart with sticks. The soil falls at their blistered feet as they scan the particles for American bones and personal effects.

The recovery team is led by Major Eric Frensley,42,a bullet-headed Army veteran and Survivor groupie who tracks the show’s weekly standings on theInternet. Frensley’s team has unearthed an unexpected maze of trenches and foxholes. The hilltop, which overlooks a farming valley, is pocked with house size bomb craters. It was here, in 1967, in the three-foot-high razor-sharp elephant grass, that Team Breaker, a seven-man Marine reconnaissance unit dropped by chopper to scout enemy positions near the infamous Ho Chi Minh Trail, was attacked. With nothing but the elephant grass for cover, they repelled wave after wave of enemy soldiers for nearly 12 hours. Four of them died; three survivors were barely airlifted out. Connell knows the story as well as anyone. But if only four Americans died here, why are there 11 boots?

“They’re just sitting here, out on the ground,” he says, unfolding himself from his makeshift desk; his boom box blasts Shaggy into the quiet mountain air. “There are all these MRE wrappers [Meals Ready to Eat, the military’s packaged rations] mixed in with the remains. That’s kind of . . . odd.

Major Frensley rises from a pit littered with ancient plastic spoons and rusted shirt buttons. He has been singing in falsetto, over the sweeping vista, “The hills are alive/ with the sound of gunfire.” The villagers, who insisted on burning incense.

In Ho Chi Minh City, not far from the War Remnants Museum’s collection of to appease the spirits of the dead before they started working here, look at him blankly. He dusts off his camos, holds up a white object, and yells in a highpitched southern keen, “Hey, you want us to dig down to this crap in the wall?”

Connell takes a few lanky strides toward Frensley. “Dude,” he says, rubbing his eyes and taking what looks like a bleached stick from Frensley’s soiled hand. “That’s bone.

LEAVE NO MAN BEHIND. SEMPER FIDELIS. THAT, IN A COUPLE OF BUMPER stickers, is the call to arms behind the Defense Department’s $103 million–a–year effort to “repatriate” unrecovered bodies. This mandate gave birth to a permanent unit in 1976,when the U.S. Army set up CILHI at Hickam Air Force Base on Oahu, just a few klicks from Pearl Harbor (where, ironically, 1,100 sailors lie entombed in the USS Arizona). Staffed by academics and forensic experts who formerly worked for the FBI, state police, and coroners throughout the United States, CILHI has identified the remains of 1,118 servicemen: 15 from the Cold War era, 307 from World War II, 30 from the Korean War, and 539 from the Vietnam War, among others. It averages two IDs a week. Each year, however, the task gets harder.

“All the low-hanging fruit has been picked,” says Johnnie Webb, CILHI’s deputy commander, a man with a mortician’s demeanor and rheumy blue eyes. “They’re all hard missions now. Out in the sticks.”

The hunt for dead soldiers begins in a cramped room at the rear of a white stuccoed building on Oahu. CILHI has 18 search-and-recovery teams, each with an anthropologist and about a dozen military specialists (including a linguist, an explosives expert, and a supply coordinator).Once CILHI is assigned a site, it hands out missions; in the field, an anthropologist like Sam Connell marks off a debris area, sets up a grid, and starts digging. What the team unearths ends up here in this fluorescent-lit, morgue-cold lab. In each case the mystery is not who died but who has been retrieved.

“When someone rots near vegetation,” says Dr. Thomas Holland, the lab’s scientific director, “roots go right through them, right through vertebrae. They’ll break bone.” Holland, who’s been at CILHI for 11 years and has led excavations in North Korea and China, is standing by a row of 20 autopsy tables. Pieces of dead men are laid out on each one in anatomical order. In most cases there are only fragments, constellations suggesting clavicle, vertebra, foot.

The scientific sleuthing at CILHI is far more elaborate than what you see on CSI. In one case the search for a positive ID required Holland’s team to trace a dead soldier’s family tree back to the 1800s, then forward along several diverging maternal lines until they located an 80-year-old relative in a nursing home. CILHI’s work doesn’t end there: A positive ID often leads to a “repatriation ceremony,” which entails an honor guard bearing a flag-draped casket. Sometimes the coffin contains nothing more than a tooth.

“Very few people,” Webb tells me, his sad eyes locked on mine, “have the opportunity, or the privilege, to offer that.”

“THIS COULD BE SOMETHING WAY BIGGER THAN THOSE FOUR GUYS,” SAYS Connell, spreading Ziplocs full of rusted buttons, a St. Christopher medal, and 23 human teeth on a sheet of plywood. “They look burnt, don’t they?”

After a full day of digging on Hill 665,we have returned to the team’s base camp, a 10-minute chopper ride east. Base camp has been cut out of dense jungle some 2,000 meters up the side of a steep mountain. Connell’s discovery is creating a stir—no one expected him to find so much stuff.

Before Connell set out for Vietnam, he had no idea that an American firebase—a large artillery position used for shelling the enemy—had been built on Hill 665. That became clear after he found large-gauge artillery shells, concertina wire, and those MRE wrappers. Now he needs to know when that base was built. It seems likely, since the Americans hadn’t advanced that far west by 1967, that it was built after the Team Breaker attack. But if that is so, then why are remains on top of the firebase? Is he digging in the right spot for Team Breaker, or has he stumbled onto some other massacre?

“This whole thing is weird,” says Lieutenant Colonel Steve Hawley, commander of the military’s Joint Task Force–Full Accounting detachment in Vietnam, a unit that helps CILHI locate bodies. Hawley is a beefy West Point grad who competes in triathlons and sits outside his tent in the morning sun reading psalms from the Living Bible.

Connell, standing nearby, appears to be in another world. From a black “remains case” he pulls out his latest find, the Ziploc bag of 23 teeth. For a forensic scientist, well-preserved teeth are the Holy Grail. He proudly hands the bag to Hawley.

“Wow, look at that,” Hawley says, hefting the bag like a big kid as the teeth click together inside. “You guys are bringing home the bacon.”

Hawley, who relishes poking fun at sixties hippies and “thankless liberals,” also likes to lampoon the Pentagon brass, who often muck up a site when they make a field visit. “That’s why I always tell you not to let the VIPs on the screens,” Hawley says, “in case some goddamn general who wants to do a little fieldwork loses a fucking tooth. . . .”

Base camp is alive with chain saws and hammers pounding away at plywood. More than 150 people from local tribes have cut down 300 trees to make room for the three-acre bamboo-and-plywood camp. The local workers, rail-thin and clad in head scarves and plastic shower sandals, are hauling pallets of bottled water up the muddy hill, shouldering the American soldiers’ plastic footlockers packed with Chef Boyardee lunches, Dinty Moore dinners, Game Boys, and DVD players. At nightfall, the workers will retreat to their tentless blankets down near the LZ, or landing zone, and eat a meal of steamed rice and bananas.

The Vietnamese government allows the United States to conduct four recovery missions each year. Before a team decides where to dig, it interviews witnesses to old battles and plane crashes and questions villagers who’ve scavenged the area for metal and may have seen bones. The Vietnamese government says it is cooperating with the United States on these “humanitarian missions.”

The real reasons have more to do with international politics and large sums of money. By embracing American recovery teams, Vietnam helped speed the lifting of a crippling 19-year trade embargo in 1994 (despite a human rights record that remains abysmal);today the United States spends more than $12 million a year in Vietnam searching for and recovering remains (and another $8 million in Laos and $1 million in Cambodia). A single recovery, like the one Sam Connell is overseeing, costs up to $500,000, most of which ends up in the pockets of government and local-province officials.

“When we go to these areas,” Hawley says, “we’re the biggest deal in town.”

The U.S. military must pay to clear landing zones, drain rice paddies, cut bamboo for base camps. It is not allowed to fly its own planes. It must rent Russian MI-8 choppers, at $3,030 per hour, and pay up to $30 a day for each local worker. The workers get only $2 of that; the Vietnamese government, which sets up worker quotas, gets the rest. At one dig site,I saw four otherwise idle villagers rebuilding a perfectly good bamboo bench.

The country’s ghoulish black-market capitalists have their hands in the cookie jar too. Villagers will show up on a site peddling bogus military ID cards. They’ll claim to know where bodies are and offer to turn them over for $4,000.

In Ho Chi Minh City, not far from the War Remnants Museum’s collection of U.S. planes and photos of “imperialist atrocities,” there is a brisk market in knockoff GI memorabilia, from rusty Zippo lighters allegedly pried from the hands of dead soldiers to dirty dog tags with names like Smith and Jones.

Perhaps most insidious are the scam artists who prey on the dead soldiers’ elderly mothers or orphaned children. A crook will search the Internet for a soldier listed as MIA and contact his relatives via e-mail. There will be a claim to have seen a missing son or husband in a nearby village. For $50, the cost of a camera, a picture will be promised. When the money arrives, another e-mail will ask for $1,500 to fix an incapacitated motorbike to buy the camera. And so on.

IN THE SPRING OF 1969, AMERICA BEGAN TO LOSE PATIENCE WITH THE Vietnam War. In the face of waning support, Richard Nixon hit on an idea: harness the emotional appeal of soldiers missing in action to keep the conflict going. It worked. By 1972, a significant number of Americans believed that recovering POWs/MIAs was the reason we were fighting. By the time South Vietnam fell in 1973, thousands of junior-high students were wearing POW/MIA bracelets.(In time, the black-and-white POW/MIA flag would fly over the White House and the New York Stock Exchange and at the Super Bowl.)

“That slash between POW and MIA was brilliant, in a demonic way,” says H.Bruce Franklin,a Rutgers University professor and author of Vietnam and Other American Fantasies. “By putting them together they created this concept that the missing might possibly be prisoners, when in fact they were likely dead.”

For nearly a decade, American attempts to bring back bodies foundered, but by the 1980s,with its economy in disarray and starvation rampant, Vietnam began to openly court the United States. When Ronald Reagan entered office, the POW/MIA issue took on a new urgency, compounded by the growing power of veterans’ groups and reported sightings of missing American soldiers in Hanoi, Bangkok, Saigon (all of them phony). High on his success with the

Iran hostages, Reagan accused Vietnam of continuing to hold POWs and MIAs. Hollywood, which had spent much of the seventies depicting “ ’Nam” as an ambiguous hell, obliged with the Rambo series, in which the Vietnamese were vilified and Sly Stallone avenged our wounded pride.

By the time George H.W. Bush outlined a road map to normalized relations, Vietnam, once a divisive waterloo, had become a national religion; POWs and MIAs were martyred saints whose relics had to be returned to the aggrieved congregation. But the chorus of anguished families and powerful VFW lobbyists obscured a darker reality: There wasn’t much left in the jungle to bring back—and collecting what remained would be a difficult and dangerous task.

The French, who are still missing 20,000 men from their war in Indochina, aren’t going back to the battlefield; neither are the Vietnamese, who claim to have lost 200,000 in “the American War.” But that hasn’t stopped every post- Vietnam president from pandering to the POW/MIA lobby. (CILHI has more than quadrupled in size in the past decade: In 1992 the unit grew from 40 to 170 men; just two years ago it expanded to 250.)

Today there is a fetishistic quality to the retrieval of our dead soldiers that borders on the grotesque. It is an obsession, this digging through 30 years of dirt and sentiment in search of closure. It didn’t exist before Vietnam, when America knew where its dead were buried. Historically, Americans left bodies behind when the losses were too heavy or the fighting too fierce.

“This mythologizing of MIAs and POWs is at one with the rescue of Private [Jessica] Lynch,” says Franklin, the Rutgers professor. “It allows us to see ourselves as heroes.But this fixation is a failure to take responsibility. We killed 2 to 3 million people and damaged the gene pool with Agent Orange and a half dozen other chemicals. We aren’t the victims here.”

SAM CONNELL REMOVES A CRIMPED PIECE OF FOIL FROM A ZIPLOC bag and gingerly hands it to a fellow anthropologist, who concludes that the bone inside is probably from a man’s upper arm. They stare quietly for a moment. Major Frensley, standing near the plywood platform that the villagers are transforming into a dining hall, whistles through his teeth. With his flannel shirt, camos, and huge metal walking stick, Frensley looks the part of the boastful backwoods jester he likes to play. In his three years at CILHI he has helped recover 50 soldiers. “In Cambodia we found a guy in his flight suit,” he says in a seen-it-all Nashville twang .“His head was still in his helmet.”

Connell frowns, tugging his dusty cap low over his eyes. He absently moves away from the group, shutting out the chatter, trying to stay focused on the nagging mystery of the boots. He spreads his Ziplocs over the plywood and consults the day’s notes. Why have they found so many boots? Why, on such a heavily scavenged site, where he would have felt lucky to retrieve a few teeth, have so many turned up—so easily—all of them burned? And why was there bone on top of the firebase “trash”?

If this were a TV show, a noirish hour of CSI, the forensic sleuths would wrap things up with a hazy faux-Hendrix backing track. Then the earnest young crime-buster would hang up his lab coat and hit the sports bar. But Connell, who will live a dry life for two weeks beneath the blistering sun on Hill 665, knows he may never figure this thing out. And it’s giving him a headache. He’s spent most of his professional life digging through Mayan striations to reveal hidden truths about an entire culture, and now he’s stumped by a 36-year-old enigma. The best he can do is advance a few hypotheses.

Perhaps the four bodies he expected to find were eaten by animals. Maybe scavengers dug up the bodies, along with the more recent firebase, and flung it all together. Or maybe the soldiers who built the firebase retrieved the bodies, hastily packed them off to regional headquarters in Danang, about a hundred miles to the southwest, and buried them as unknowns in the chaos of war.

Then again, maybe the boots were simply left behind by grunts when they evacuated the firebase. After all, it’s not clear from military accounts precisely where Team Breaker landed that night. Who knows? The fact is, Connell may never learn what really took place. But frankly, he probably wouldn’t let me in on it anyway, since no one at CILHI really wants me to know what happened on Hill 665. Officially, they’re not allowed to say.

In 1991 Senator John McCain successfully floated a bill requiring the Pentagon to make public all information about Vietnam War POWs/MIAs— but only if the families provided consent. Otherwise the information was to be kept confidential. (A 1995 amendment extended those protections to the Korean War and the Cold War era, but not to World War II, or either of the wars in Iraq, or any wars that may follow.) CILHI won’t even tell MIA families when it’s going to excavate a site. This way, the argument goes, expectations will not be raised. During my travels with CILHI, I was given only the vaguest outline of what actually happened at “the location of loss.” But a search of the thousands of pages and Web sites devoted to Vietnam battles and memorials revealed the truth.

A FEW WEEKS AFTER I LEAVE CONNELL, I MEET WITH FORMER MARINE helicopter crew chief Ron Zaczek in a New York City bar. In 1967 he was a 19-yearold grunt in a Huey trying to rescue three surrounded marines from Hill 665. Ten attempts by other crews had already been made, and one chopper pilot had been killed.

What Zaczek remembers most was hovering over the marines’ position as tracers and grenades tore by his chopper and a napalm fire burned up the hill, eating its way toward the downed men. As the smoke cleared, Zaczek saw one of the most gruesome sights he’d see in the war: The three surviving soldiers were huddled inside a circle of corpses. In an effort to stay alive, they’d stacked a dozen enemy bodies—and their four dead buddies—to create a shield. All the corpses were on fire.

“There was no way we could get those bodies out,” says Zaczek, who rescued the three survivors. “For years it’s bothered me.It wasn’t right to leave them up there alone.”

As of late June, despite 30 recovered teeth and the boots, shirt buttons, and other artifacts, CILHI still does not have enough evidence to make a positive ID. Connell, unsatisfied that the evidence on Hill 665 has been fully recovered, is headed back. This time he’ll widen his grid by 60 meters. He still hopes to uncover enough to ID all four men. But even if that happens, he admits, there might be remains he’ll never find. “At some point,” he says, “you’ve got to decide financially if it’s worth it.”

Of course, if parts of those dead soldiers remain there, what has CILHI accomplished? How much of a body has to be brought back for a family to feel closure, for the military to feel that it has left no man behind?

There was once a reverence for the faceless military sacrifice, a hallowed quality to memorials like the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Washington, D.C. But CILHI scientists have spread even those bones on their autopsy tables. Today they are prying up headstones in Hawaii’s Punchbowl memorial cemetery and identifying soldiers from World War II and the Korean War.

A once-accepted risk, that going off to war meant you might not return, has been complicated by science, red tape, and guilt.

Not every family with a missing soldier supports this activist approach. Some are deeply conflicted. One couple denies their son was ever killed; another believes their boy should be left to rest in peace, that any retrieval will bring back painful memories.

“You bring back what you can,” says Republican congressman Robert Simmons of Connecticut, a veteran of the Vietnam War and a member of the House Armed Services Committee, who supports CILHI and has accompanied one mission. “You ID it and convey that to the family so they can have a funeral—and that should close the process. Hopefully the family feels the same way.”

Carl Friery certainly supports CILHI. On May 10, 1967,Frierywas on top of Hill 665 with Team Breaker. He was a 21-year-old backup radio operator with a hemorrhaging gut wound and a grenade hole in his back. As Vietnamese bullets flew overhead and napalm burned his nostril hair and he poured canteen water over his dead buddies, he and his two squad mates were whisked to safety by Zaczek, who cradled him like a child during the ride out. As someone who saw his close friends killed and was then forced to use them as shields, he believes in any mission to retrieve their remains.

“I understand a family saying ‘Let them rest in peace,’” he tells me from Colorado, where he works in a middle-school lunchroom. “But they’ve rested for 36 years. I think it’s time to bring them back.