MCCONNELL AIR FORCE BASE, Kan. – Hands are calloused from endless hours digging, exhausted from the heat and what feels like an endless day, but the determination to find just one keeps you going.
These thoughts were circling through the head of Master Sgt. George Gonzalez, Recovery Team One lead medical provider, as he spent countless days in the country of Lao People’s Democratic Republic looking for the remains of Airmen that had been declared missing in action.
During his regular duty at the 22nd Medical Group as the 22nd Aerospace Medicine Squadron superintendent, Gonzalez advises the 22nd AMDS Commander on decisions, building morale in the unit and helping the Airmen of the 22nd AMDS with career progression. While in Laos, Gonzalez was tasked with not only being the lead medical provider, but also with the recovery of fallen service members.
In 1961, the small country of Laos played a key role during the Vietnam War, where many service members from various countries paid the ultimate sacrifice. Today, over 1,500 Americans remain unaccounted for, including members of the U.S. Air Force.
The Defense Prisoner of War/Missing in Action Accounting Agency’s mission is the recovery of fallen or missing service members from past conflicts. DPAA’s vision is to maximize the return of as many POW/MIA service members to their family as timely and accurately as possible.
Gonzalez attended a three-day class held by DPAA at its operational office in Hawaii. During this class, he learned techniques he would use for the recovery of lost service members.
Presently, there are still a massive number of unexploded ordnances resulting from the Vietnam War that still lie on the grounds of Laos; Gonzalez’s team had to remain on high alert.
“We were told to stay on the trail heading to the dig site because there were UXOs laying everywhere from the Vietnam War,” said Gonzalez.
As a standby medic, Gonzalez’s primary duty is to ensure the healthy well-being of all of the members of his group, but while in Laos he was able to use the digging and sifting techniques he learned in Hawaii to contribute toward the search for the missing Airmen.
“When someone would find something we would get really excited and yell for the anthropologist, so that she could identify if it was a fallen service member,” said Gonzalez.
At times the heat and thickness of the surrounding jungle could become tiring and discouraging.
“Any time you lost motivation or felt tired from digging or sifting all day they had pictures of the members we were looking for,” said Gonzalez. “I would just think that we had to get these guys home to their families.”
A repatriation ceremony was held to honor the fallen service members and to return them to their families. Gonzalez said their team finally got to rest knowing their fellow service members from the past were finally going to make it home.
Gonzalez said it was emotional, but one of proudest moments he has experienced in the Air Force because of the mission of the DPAA and what he was able to accomplish for the families of the missing service members while in Laos.