Army sleuthing finds remains of MIAsBY ELAINE TARELLO
Special to TGI
When Army Sgt. James T. Higgins headed off to North Korea to
serve his country in 1950, his family figured he’d be back home in about a
But one fateful night, after a deadly assault by Chinese forces,
Higgins disappeared. His family was left with a devastating loss and a lot of
Fifty years later, thanks in part to the efforts of a
former Kaua’ian, the Higgins family finally has the answers they’ve been
waiting for. And their loved one is finally coming home.
Army Spec. Kylan
Dela Cruz, son of Stanley and Patricia Dela Cruz of ‘Ele’ele and a 1983
graduate of Waimea High School, is among 170 military and civilian members of
the Army Central Identification Laboratory-Hawai’i. The organization is
dedicated to finding and identifying more than 90,000 U.S. service members such
as Higgins who are still missing in action from past wars.
travel to remote and often dangerous locations, ranging from the glaciers of
Tibet to the tropical jungles of Papua New Guinea. On site, the teams – each
including a team leader, a noncommissioned officer in charge, an
anthropologist, a mortuary affairs specialist, a medic and a photographer —
sift through soil searching for bone fragments, aircraft wreckage and personal
clothing. The artifacts, along with medical records and witness interviews, can
help piece together events of 60 years ago.
Dela Cruz, a special operations
medic, is a member of one of the six-person recovery teams. He provides routine
and emergency medical care to team members and “indigenous people in the area,”
such as the 1,800 Cambodians he once helped treat for ailments ranging from
common colds to gunshot and shrapnel wounds.
Usually without medical
facilities in remote areas, “it’s essential to have some type of medical care
available,” he noted.
Dela Cruz also helps hunt for fragments and relics to
send to a lab for analysis by scientists who use laser technology to establish
identities. So far, they’ve been highly successful. Since the
search-and-identify units were created in 1973, 933 service members have been
identified: 658 from Southeast Asian battles, 20 from the Korean War (including
Higgins), 240 from World War II and 15 from the Cold War.
With more than
90,000 MIAs remaining, Dela Cruz and the others have more mysteries to solve.
Each year, the teams spend more than 220 days searching for clues in some harsh
Dela Cruz said his “most memorable trip” was to a World War
II site in south China.
“The site was located on the side of a mountain, so
we had to climb and keep in good physical condition,” he said. “It was
challenging, but also incredibly rewarding, since we found remains and personal
effects that were later determined to be the remains of individuals from an
The risks are worthwhile because of the rewards in finding
MIAs “who sacrificed their lives for this country” and in helping give their
families “a sense of closure.”
Elaine Tarello is a writer for Army and
Air Force Hometown News Service.
Photo by Keith
ARCHAEOLOGY-style work by an Army team and Laotian natives unearthed
human remains and personal belongings in Laos.