DPAA completes recovery operations in Belgium

DPAA completes recovery operations in Belgium
A Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA) member carries buckets through the mud during a recovery mission in Belgium, May 26, 2021. During the 72-day mission, the team regularly faced difficult weather conditions to include snow, hail, wind and rain. DPAA’s mission is to achieve the fullest possible accounting for missing and unaccounted-for U.S. personnel to their families and the nation. Photo credit U.S. Air Force/Staff Sgt. Apryl Hall)

“You are not authorized to have bad days.”

He stressed this point to the other 23 individuals in the room, preparing them for what to expect over the following two months of working tirelessly in the mud. The majority of the young military members were unsure what he meant by it, as it was their first time on a mission like this. He wanted them to understand how crucial each and every one of them and their attention was to the success of the team. With more than 75 missions under his belt, he still felt emotionally connected to his job, especially this particular site.

“I waited almost 20 years to come back here,” said Howard Tiave Mariteragi, a Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA) life support investigator. “This case became important to me, I’ve been watching over it. I’m finally here again and want to find answers, and hopefully be able to give the family those answers as well.”

In 2003, Mariteragi was part of the first team that excavated the U.S. Army Air Forces C-47 crash site, which took place in 1944 during the Second Word War. The team was much smaller and the technology quite different. They were unsuccessful in finding the only man who was still unaccounterd-for from the crash, 1st Lt. Eugene Shauvin. With a team three-times the size and several advancements in methodologies and technology, Mariteragi was thrilled to get a chance to return.

“We’ve become very good at what we do,” he said. “Everyone has a specific task to do and they understand that. It’s an incredible thing to watch this team grasp the importance of what we are trying to do here.”

The 24-person team was comprised of seven organic DPAA members and 17 augmented military members from Fort Lee, Virginia and Chievres Air Base in Belgium. Despite the majority of the team being new to recovery missions, they quickly adjusted to the demanding physical labor, critical need for attention to detail, and the unpredictable Belgian Spring weather.

“I understand they’re young, but they’re very enthusiastic,” said Mariteragi. “They really wanted to get this thing done, and that’s an amazing thing for me to see.”

During the 2003 mission, Mariteragi met Shauvin’s daughter Linda Chauvin, who changed the spelling of her last name to her father’s original spelling. Linda had been very involved in her father’s case and had visited the crash site several times. Interested to watch the excavation, she stayed with a neighboring family she had befriended on previous visits, and watched while the team worked. She often showed her gratitude by bringing the team coffee or treats and even stepped out occasionally to help the team carry buckets. Mariteragi kept in contact with her all these years.

With COVID-19 still very much a global threat, it seemed unlikely Linda would be able to travel to Belgium for the second excavation, as tourist travel was still prohibited. The local Belgian friends she made in 2003 and has remained close with fought hard for her to return. Through her efforts and the push from her Belgian friends, Linda was granted special permission by the government to travel to Belgium for the site’s second excavation.

“I wanted to be here more than anything in the world, but it seemed impossible,” she said. “Because of those people, I am here today. The Belgian people just keep welcoming me here, they’re my family now.”

Throughout the 72-day mission, the DPAA team was able to excavate and screen an estimated 1,013 tons of soil in a 422 square-meter area, despite the Belgian Spring weather proving very difficult to work in. The team faced every type of weather imaginable and often experienced all four seasons in a single day.

“The weather has been atrocious,” Linda said. “I have watched this team march out there in hail, wind, rain, cold weather and work so diligently, rarely taking breaks. When you say that expression ‘move heaven and earth,’ they have moved earth, tons and tons of earth!”

Linda was able to be there for the team’s last week of excavation, but she kept her distance in order to mitigate COVID-associated risks. She occasionally stood at the edge of the field and simply took in the scene. If a team member was ever within earshot, she made sure to express her deep appreciation for their work.

“They are doing everything they can to find my father’s remains,” Linda said. “I am so humbled by this contribution that these people have made. I’ll just never be able to say thank you enough.”

While DPAA members are very familiar with the thousands of stories just like Linda’s, and what it would mean to her and those like her who have waited so long for their loved ones to return home, this particular mission hit a little closer to home for some.

“Coming back 20 years later has been an incredible experience for me,” Mariteragi said. “When we say ‘No one is left behind’ we truly mean it. Our country will do whatever it takes, send the right people with the right technology and right ability to find them, bring them home where they belong, and allow their families to close this incredible chapter in their lives.”