Search-and-identify is ex-islander’s mission

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

unanswered questions.

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.

Recovery teams

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

aircraft crash.”

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.

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