PCs, laptops, GPS help find missing

Honolulu—To fulfill their mandate to identify and return the remains of the Americans still missing in action from the Vietnam War, the self-described "jungle detectives" assigned to a task force to look for the remains rely heavily on a database that contains the records of all 2,043 Americans MIAs.

Joint Task Force-Full Accounting, the Defense Department group headquartered here and charged with finding the missing in action, maintains its "Bright Light" database on about 60 laptops and 150 desktops. Field recovery teams work on the laptops, and the task force's staff of investigators, analysts and linguists work on the desktops, as do detachments in Hanoi, Vietnam; Veitianne, Laos; and Bangkok, Thailand. The database is correlated with records of aircraft crashes, which account for the majority of the unresolved cases, including remains recovered from Koh Tang Island in Cambodia, the last combat action by the United States in Southeast Asia in 1975 [FCW, Nov. 22].

Air Force Master Sgt. James Chastain, the noncommissioned officer in charge of the task force's computer systems, said he believes in onsite maintenance and support of the systems. To service the computers and networks, he must periodically travels to countries the United States fought during a 20-year period in history.

"I just returned from a three-week trip to make sure [the detachments] have the latest and greatest in software," Chastain said. All the detachments have e-mail and, in a sign of changing times, the Hanoi detachment recently started running its ".mil" e-mail messages through a local Vietnamese Internet service provider to save costs.

Chastain described the dial-up e-mail service as a vital "quality of life issue" for the personnel in the detachments, who use it to keep in touch with their families and for official correspondence. Chastain said he operates two Dell Computer Corp. 233 MHz servers with Intel Corp. Pentium II processors at the detachments and two at the headquarters' local-area network, which supports slightly more than 100 users. The task force also has opted for Dell desktops, Chastain said, with most of the desktops being Dell PII 333 MHz. Laptops range from Toshiba America Information Systems Inc. PII 133 MHz machines to Dell Latitudes.

All the PCs run the task force's Bright Light casualty database on Microsoft Corp.'s Access, which Chastain described as "pretty primitive" from his perspective as a savvy computer technician who speaks Cobol as a second language.

But to Marine Staff Sgt. John Mingle, a task force intelligence analyst, Bright Light provides him with easy-to-use access to a wide range of data. "The fields range from crash sites to [crew] names, to home states, ethnic group and blood type...and [the database] allows us to do a query on any of those."

The field teams interview villagers, search for crash sites and help the Army's Central Identification Laboratory recover the remains. The teams previously used paper maps, but Mingle said the teams have started loading digitized maps from the National Imagery and Mapping Agency onto their laptops. Mingle said he can run a query on the Bright Light database on a crash site and then post its coordinates on the digitized map.

Communications for the task-force detachments and field teams range from high-frequency radio systems—a mainstay of military long-haul over-the-air communications in the Vietnam War—to handheld Iridium LLC satellite phones, said Navy Chief Petty Officer Ken Kelley, the task force's communications specialist. Although Kelley said Iridium still has some bugs, the task force has not experienced some of the problems that have plagued commercial users because the field teams use them in the open, "and we also have enough sense not to use them inside buildings," which would block the path to the satellite.

The recovery operations, such as the one on Koh Tang Island to recover the crew and passengers of a downed Air Force helicopter, are low-tech operations that rely on shoveling tons of dirt and then sifting it through screens designed to recover small bits of bone and teeth, according to William Belcher, a laboratory anthropologist.

The teams use remote-sensing devices to help pinpoint crash sites, scattered years ago across land obscured by triple-canopy jungle. Once at the site, Belcher said, the task force and the identification lab teams use ground penetrating radar to help locate buried objects that would indicate a place to dig that could yield human remains.

Some teams rely on Global Positioning System (GPS) receivers to help pinpoint a site, but Belcher avoids the devices because of inaccuracies that can range from "100 to 350 feet," he said. Instead, he determines his position by correlating visible terrain features with a topographic map and then records that position as a "topographic location" to differentiate it from GPS-derived positions.

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