OS1 Chris Walgenbach, U.S. Navy (2004-Present)



The following Reflection represents OS1 Chris Walgenbachs legacy of their military service from 2004 to Present. If you are a Veteran, consider preserving a record of your own military service, including your memories and photographs, on Togetherweserved.com (TWS), the leading archive of living military history. The Service Reflections is an easy-to-complete self-interview, located on your TWS Military Service Page, which enables you to remember key people and events from your military service and the impact they made on your life.

Of all the military operations you participated in, including combat, humanitarian or peacekeeping operations, which of these made a lasting impact on you and why?:

My volunteer time for the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA) is the one lasting impact that really stands out. I was working at an Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) unit in California, and the agency was looking to fill two Non-Commissioned Officer (NCO) spots for one of their missions. I and a friend of mine that worked at the same command, a GM2, stepped up and were selected.

We were both sent to Hawaii three weeks later for in-processing, various medical screenings and booster shots, a brief on who we were going to be looking for (two Air Force officers who crashed in their F-4D during the Vietnam War), a generic rundown of what we were expected to do for a DPAA mission and finally, our team assignments. We were given a hefty allowance and a large Pelican hard case, told to go to the commissary, stock up on non-perishables and clothing that we wouldn’t care about getting ruined, packed everything up on some Air Force pallets, got onto a C-17, and flew out to Thailand. From there, we made our way by bus all the way up to to a remote village on the North-Eastern border of Laos and Vietnam.

My team then spent a few days erecting a dig site in the corner of a rice field. The rest of the two months consisted of digging down into the ground via a grid system that our civilian Forensic Anthropologist set up. What I found really cool was the variety of military involved; a Marine EOD, an Army communications guy, an Air Force medic – plus the other NCOs (the “diggers”) from all the military branches. We had a civilian doctor, an Army translator, and a retired Navy PJ as our Life Support Equipment Expert (LSE). Every day (except Sunday), we were out there in the searing heat and sun digging buckets of dirt, sending them up to rows of suspended metal sifters hanging from cut bamboo logs, pounded hardened red clay (which we nicknamed “Devil Dirt”) and looked for small fragments of airplane, clothing, bone – anything that wasn’t dirt or clay. We would play soccer with the village children during breaks and at lunch and converse with the adults and elderly (through the two Americans that spoke their language).

At the end of each 10-hour day, we would return by Laos police escort to our guesthouse, meet up at the on-site family-run restaurant and go through our findings for the day. There would be Ziploc bags full of airframe metal, uniform cloth, boot leather, bungee cord, and even the dog tag from one of the officers. The LSE would pick out the smallest fragment of shiny metal or faded dark green cloth and proceed to tell us, in detail, where it was on the plane or on our pilot’s person, following it up with historical picture evidence (a service photo of the pilot or a panoramic picture of the inside of the cockpit of the same kind of plane). Our Forensic Anthropologist would then pick out fragments of bone and explain- however, at this stage of the process, not “conclusively” identify; human versus animal bone or fossilized tree bark and how to tell the difference. The team would then order up a round or two of Beer Lao, praise and poke fun at each other, tell their ‘sea’ stories, and call it a night. Someone had brought a guitar with them, and some nights we’d sing along; others would play Blackjack, and some would have a quiet night of watching movies.

Since we had found bone, although not yet identified as human or not, we had a repatriation ceremony. I was fortunate to have packed my Service Uniform (a little birdie told me before I even left for Hawaii to pack it, just in case), so I was able to be a part of the Repatriation Guard. A handful of Lao dignitaries and U.S. ambassadors came out for the ceremony, and it was even nationally televised on Laos networks. Shortly after that, we packed up, secured the site for future excavation if need be, and flew back to Hawaii for debriefing and more paperwork before going our separate ways back to our respective commands.

A few months later, my Team OIC emailed us the results of some bone fragments – we had been successful in finding our aircraft commander. He was given a burial with full military honors, witnessed by surviving family members. Then two months later, the results were conclusive on more bone fragments – our pilot. He, too, was given a burial with full military honors.

To this day, I still get choked up when I talk about this mission or re-read the news articles. It is such an amazing feeling that I really can’t put it into words – you have to experience it for yourself if you ever get lucky enough. To know that I was part of a small crew of individuals who, through sweat and tears, ripped clothing and scratched hands, sunbaked necks, and achy bones, came together and were able to bring closure to those two families who for 48 years had waited for their service member to come home finally – I will never forget that.

Read the Military Memories of our Runner-Ups.

Boot Camp, Units, Combat Operations

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Tags: C-17, Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA), Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD), F-4D, Military Memories of our Runner-Ups, Vietnam War

1 Comment

  1. Michael Rhodes

    Chris, your story also choked me up as well. What an amazing thing to be able to provide some closure and a final burial with full military honors for those family members so many years later. Your description of how tedious that work must have been coming through in your writing and my deepest gratitude for your service and well done for your win in the June writing competition.


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