Where They Lay: Searching for America's Lost Soldiers

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Where They Lay melds an account of an elite military team's high-tech, high-risk search for a Vietnam War pilot's remains with a remarkably immediate and poignant retelling of his final intense hours.
In far-flung rain forests and its futuristic lab near Pearl Harbor, the Central Identification Laboratory (CILHI) strives to recover and identify the bodies of fighting men who never came home from America?s wars. Its mission combines ...

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Overview

Where They Lay melds an account of an elite military team's high-tech, high-risk search for a Vietnam War pilot's remains with a remarkably immediate and poignant retelling of his final intense hours.
In far-flung rain forests and its futuristic lab near Pearl Harbor, the Central Identification Laboratory (CILHI) strives to recover and identify the bodies of fighting men who never came home from America’s wars. Its mission combines old-fashioned bushwhacking and detective work with the latest in forensic technology.
Earl Swift accompanies a CILHI team into the Laotian jungle on a search for the remains of Major Jack Barker and his three-man crew, whose chopper went down in a fireball more than thirty years ago. He interweaves the story of the recovery team's work with a tense account of Barker's fatal attempt to rescue trapped soldiers during the largest helicopter assault in history. Swift is the first reporter ever allowed to follow a recovery mission, as these unique archaeological digs are called, in its entirety, and he got his hands dirty, combing the jungle floor for clues amid vipers, monsoons, and unexploded bombs.
Where They Lay resounds with admiration for those who fell and those who seek them. But Swift also raises hard questions about these recovery missions. Is it worth $100 million a year to try to bring home the lost from old wars? Is it worth the lives of today's soldiers? (Seven Americans died in the line of duty just months before Swift went in country.) And is the effort compromised by the corruption among native officials overseeing missions in their countries?
As new conflicts draw our attention, Where They Lay throws brilliant light on war's cost to soldiers and to those they leave at home.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Solidly detailed amalgam of military history and contemporary archeology....An unusual tale of war and remembrance." Kirkus Reviews

"This solid and informative study by a seasoned military journalist offers the first full-scale account of the work of the Central Identification Laboratory." Publishers Weekly

Publishers Weekly
This solid and informative study by a seasoned military journalist offers the first full-scale account of the work of the Central Identification Laboratory. Dedicated to the location, recovery and identification of the remains of missing American soldiers, the lab has worked mainly with Vietnam MIAs. Swift focuses on the search for an army helicopter crew that went down in Laos in 1971. He interweaves accounts of a generation's worth of site sifting, involving everything from the most basic shovel work to satellite relaying of computer data, with the whole history of the remains-recovery project. He adds short biographies of the four lost airmen-Jack Barker, John Dugan, Billy Dillender and John Chubb-and the details of forensic and archeological techniques used over the last generation. He also paints a vivid portrait of deeply impoverished Laos, the sometimes helpful Laotians and the military professionals and technical specialists who make up the search teams. Neither antimilitary nor prowar, the book exhibits thorough research, intelligent assimilation of personal experience (including some of the shoveling) and what might be called a commitment to commitment as represented by the whole quest for the American MIA that is now entering its third generation. (Nov.) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Swift, who has himself gone on recovery missions, here chronicles the efforts of the Central Identification Laboratory- Hawaii-and the costs (not only monetary) of doing so. Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Solidly detailed amalgam of military history and contemporary archaeology, tracing American attempts to recover fallen soldiers. Norfolk Virginian-Pilot staff writer Swift's debut chronicles from start to finish a recovery search by the military's Central Identification Laboratory-Hawaii (CILHI), an expensive initiative to find remains of soldiers deemed "missing in action" during far-flung WWII and Vietnam battles. The author depicts such efforts as an unwritten contract with the military's soldiers, an observation with particular poignancy regarding the helicopter crew the search pursues, lost in southeastern Laos on a virtual suicide mission in 1971. In the present day, Swift arrives in remote, snake-infested territory with an elaborately provisioned US-Laotian team for a monthlong dig; he'd previously visited sites in Vietnam and Papua New Guinea. The success of such projects depends on the team's unorthodox but skilled military specialists and anthropologists, but also, more troublingly, on the locals' compromised recollections-Swift cites cash-strapped officials hoarding and recycling war relics and remains. The author alternates his exhaustive look at the recovery process, which yields many tantalizing helicopter fragments but no conclusive human remains, with a dramatic recreation of events leading to the final mission of the four doomed airmen. They had volunteered for a repeat sortie into a "hot LZ" as part of the war's largest helicopter campaign, which attempted to assist besieged South Vietnamese forces but was turned by the Vietcong into a devastating shoot-down. This action adds some muscle to the relatively cerebral, though haunting account of the arduous, inconclusiverecovery operation. Overall, Swift's narrative demonstrates a firm grasp on the dark quirks of contemporary Southeast Asia and on the determined efforts in challenging circumstances made by the talented eccentrics of the CILHI, though he also discusses the prospect of CILHI being too costly and difficult to continue indefinitely. An unusual tale of war and remembrance, with particular appeal-but perhaps disturbing undertones-for Vietnam and air-combat buffs. Agent: Laureen Rowland/David Black, Inc.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780618168200
  • Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
  • Publication date: 11/11/2003
  • Pages: 320
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 0.81 (d)

Meet the Author

EARL SWIFT is the author of three previous books, including Where They Lay , a 2003 PEN finalist. He lives in Virginia with his daughter Saylor.

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Read an Excerpt

1

Their buddies called it suicide, and maybe it was.
They climbed aboard the Huey knowing the enemy expected them. They did it knowing their guns were no match for the cannons that waited. They knew they’d be lucky beyond hope to get past them, and luckier still to get back. They climbed aboard the Huey just the same.
Time was short. Just over the border, their allies were surrounded and outnumbered and taking heavy fire. They depended on the four aboard the helicopter to get them out.
So on a Saturday in March 1971, the Huey skimmed over the mountains into the wide, wild valley beyond, following a rutted, two-lane highway into Laos. The country below was a tangle of splintered hardwoods and sheared bamboo, the jungle’s floor laid bare in wounds that stood fresh and red against the green. Off to starboard, a chain of low hills marked the northern edge of the Xepon River’s flood plain. Looming ahead was its southern boundary, an escarpment a thousand feet high that showed its bones in cliffs streaked pink and gray. Worn into the rock was a notch a kilometer wide. In it was the pickup zone.
The flak started miles out. The Huey’s pilots slalomed the bird among arcing yellow tracers and blooms of brown smoke as it dropped toward the target. Its gunners opened fire with their M-60s, sweeping the trees on the helicopter’s final approach.
The reply was overwhelming: Bullets raked the chopper’s thin metal skin, whistled into the cabin, tore into man and machine. Then came something worse—a blur, rising from the trees, a telltale plume—and a flash. Fire swallowed the Huey. It hit the ground in pieces.
Other choppers circled low over the burning wreckage, crews marking the spot on their charts. None landed. North Vietnamese soldiers swarmed the bamboo thickets and forest around the smashed chopper, too many to risk a recovery mission. America was forced to leave the Huey, and the four, where they lay.
Which is what brings me, on a gray summer morning thirty years later, to a vibrating seat in the cabin of a Russian-builtMi-17 helicopter. And why its course takes me from a former American air base beside the Mekong River into the same valley, toward the same rampart of cliffs, in the battered highlands along the Vietnam-Laos border.
Somewhere down there is what’s left of Jack Barker, John Dugan, Billy Dillender, and John Chubb. For two generations their remains have lain in a remote corner of this remote land, as bamboo and hardwood saplings erupted into new jungle around them, as monsoon rains scoured the red-clay earth and swooning heat baked it dry. Their comrades have grown old. Their children have had children of their own. Today, finally, their countrymen have arrived to take them home.
Sitting beside me are the soldiers and scientists, most too young to remember the war, who will search for the Huey’s crew, men and women who for the next four weeks will live in a camp of canvas and nylon and lashed bamboo in the Laotian back country, and who will pass their days on an archaeological dig carved into the wilderness.
They will commute to work in craft all too similar to the ruined machine they seek, and face a host of dangers once they land—steep terrain, triple-digit temperatures, withering humidity, and thickets aswarm with scorpions, foot-long centipedes, and bright green vipers so venomous their nickname is “Jake Two-Steps,” said to be how far their victims get before dropping.
The mosquitoes carry malaria, and dengue fever, and God knows what else. Tigers patrol the jungle. And if this weren’t worry enough, the ground is laced with unexploded ordnance, leftovers of the fighting that claimed Jack Barker and his crew—half-buried bombs and antitank mines and rockets and grenades and baseball-sized bomblets that, jostled the slightest bit, can all these years later turn an arm or leg into a puff of pink smoke.
The Mi-17 is short on frills. The cabin smells of exhaust. The sound of the rotor varies from deafening whine to bone-jolting bass chord. Hot wind buffets in through open portholes. The floor is plywood; the bare-metal bulkheads are stenciled with instructions in Cyrillic. It has the look and ambiance of an old and neglected school bus.
Only school buses don’t yaw sickeningly as they travel. They don’t boast clamshell doors like the big pair forming the cabin’s back end, doors between which I can see a thin but significant stripe of bright Asian airspace. I watch the gap for a while, see that its width keeps time with the Mi-17’s shivers, which course through the frame like a dog shaking dry.
School buses aren’t typically driven by committee either. The helicopter’s cockpit is crowded with Laotian military men. I can see four of them from where I sit, all speaking and pointing past a pair of jerky windshield wipers into the sky ahead. All are in bits annnnnd pieces of uniform. The pilot is a skinny guy in a bright yellow T-shirt. His left hand is pressed against his headset, as if he can’t hear over the chatter around him.
There are a couple dozen of us aboard, squeezed into troop seats that line the cabin’s sides. My view of those on the far side is blocked by luggage stacked four feet high down the length of the wide aisle. None of it is tied down. The pile—backpacks and suitcases, hard-cased gear and tools—teeters with each banking turn the big chopper makes. Somewhere behind us, another Mi-17 carries a similar load of people and equipment, and sprinkled elsewhere in the sky are four smaller Eurocopter Squirrels, carrying a handful of people apiece.
In all, fifty Americans are in the air. Most work for the U.S. Army’s Central Identification Laboratory, where thirty civilian anthropologists and more than one hundred military specialists perform forensic detective work under the microscope and in the wildest of wilds, all aimed at bringing home those lost in America’s wars. Others are with Joint Task Force–Full Accounting, a puree of the different services that manage the lab’s visits to Southeast Asia and conduct the research that pinpoints where its teams should dig.
Beyond the rain-streaked porthole behind me, wispy clouds race past. I push my forehead against the glass to see the ground below, catch a glimpse of squares and trapezoids and narrow rectangles of bright green, a quiltwork of rice paddies stitched together with dikes that follow the land’s irregular contours. A cloud interrupts the view. Then another. A moment later we fly through a bigger, thicker mat of vapor, and then there’s nothing but white out there.
Up in the cockpit, water drips from the ceiling, and the three guys assisting the pilot are gesticulating more than ever. The pilot is half out of his seat, squinting. The windshield looks painted over. Some of my fellow passengers shift nervously in their seats. They know the lay of the land, that with every minute we’re in the air, the terrain below gets taller and steeper and rockier, that the bottomland from which we took off gives way to a jumble of mountains and solitary karsts, pinnacles of limestone that jut skyward like the teeth of some enormous buried dragon. They know, far better than I, the Mi-17’s limitations. Among them: This machine lacks ground-reading radar. We’re flying blind.
A big fellow to my right rests his arm on the luggage in front of us and lowers his head into the crook of his elbow. He’s been resting that way for a long minute when we burst into the light. Everyone in the cabin seems to take a deep breath at once; even the chopper’s crew chief, a sturdy, sullen- looking Laotian soldier in camouflage fatigues, grins for an instant as we speed eastward, the clouds now below us. The mood doesn’t last. Eventually we’ll have to descend back through the clouds.

When Saigon fell in April 1975, ending America’s thirteen years of open war in Southeast Asia, 2,583 U.S. servicemen were unaccounted for. That might seem a modest number next to the legions lost in the country’s earlier conflicts. Tens of thousands of soldiers died nameless in the War Between the States, after all; national cemeteries are crowded with them, Yankee and Reb who died in battle and were buried close to where they fell—dozens to a grave at Richmond, beneath acres at Gettysburg and Petersburg, a thousand miles from home in the desert of New Mexico. Another 78,000 American bodies were never recovered from World War II, from planes lost in the mountains of New Guinea and from island beaches seized by landing marines, from ships sunk a mile deep, from the blood-nourished fields of Normandy.
Half a century on, there’s been no sign of 8,000 men who fought in North Korea. Most probably died on the rimy shore of the Chosin Reservoir, or in smaller firefights that never earned titles. Others simply vanished on battlefields their country did not win and could not search.
But Vietnam, more than any of those costlier conflicts, proved to be a slow-healing wound in the American heart, and those who never came home a source of gnawing unease. Many vets had friends whom they’d fought beside, whom they’d seen or spoken with moments before they vanished, and whose fate was uncertain. Thousands of families lacked proof that a husband, a father, a son was gone. All yearned for answers.
So, since the mid-eighties, the U.S. government has been embarked on a mission unprecedented in recorded history: To return to the places where planes went down, ambushed patrols left people behind, men simply disappeared. To find the remains of the missing. To send home all they find. To put a name, the right name, on each of their headstones.
It sends an expedition into Southeast Asia ten times each year. One trip is to Cambodia, where the fates of almost 60 Americans remain unresolved. Four of the trips, or “joint field activities,” are to Vietnam, from which more than 1,400 men have yet to return; on each, five or six recovery teams fan out through the countryside, so that over the course of a typical year, Americans excavate better than twenty sites there. And half of the trips are made to the Lao People’s Democratic Republic—to this landlocked, xenophobic throwback of stone-simple villages and roadless jungle, where nearly 400 soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines remain unfound.
Five times a year, American recovery teams fly here on U.S. Air Force cargo planes. The Laotian government permits only fifty people per joint field activity and monitors their movements closely. They land at Vientiane, the capital, where their visas are processed. From there they fly to Savannakhet, a city on the Mekong, halfway down the Laotian panhandle. At an airport where the United States once ran supply flights to troops fighting the Communist Pathet Lao—ancestor of the present government—team members climb off the planes and onto trucks, which trundle them a quarter mile to a helipad. Then, loaded onto Laotian Mi-17s, they fly away from the modern world and into country seen by few Americans in thirty years.
I have flown 12,000 miles and across twelve time zones to join the mission as its unofficial fifty-first member, to witness its work in the jungle and immerse myself in the technological leaps of the past fifteen years that have made it possible. I’ve come, too, with questions about this massive effort, questions like: Why is the government doing this now? Is it necessary at all? Is it worth $100 million a year? And: Why are the people of Southeast Asia, with hundreds of thousands of their own missing, helping us?

It is my third visit to the region. Like those previous, it began with a seemingly endless flight across the Pacific to the vast weirdness of the Bangkok airport, a humid stew of peoples and languages, of smells and long lines and impenetrable crowds where, while waiting for a passport stamp, I was mesmerized by a gargantuan video screen that loomed over the terminal; on it, a Thai and his trained parrot whistled the theme from The Andy Griffith Show. Jetlagged and muddle-headed, I flew on to Laos, a territory slightly smaller than Oregon and shaped like a long-stalked head of broccoli. China and Burma lie to the north, Cambodia to the south. To the west, beyond the muscular Mekong, is Thailand; no bridge linked the two until 1993, and only one does so today. Vietnam lies to the east, across a border of high mountains.
It is poor even by Third World standards—too poor, really, for its socialist government to control any real wealth or production, or to provide much in the way of services. There’s not a foot of railroad track. Vast portions of Laos are unelectrified. Most of the country lacks running water, and in the few cities where it exists it’s unfit to drink. Outside of the same handful of cities, health care is virtually nonexistent, education is paltry, the economy is preindustrial, and living conditions border on the medieval. It is a world lit by fire. Much of the population subsists on family rice plots, crossbow hunting, and foraging.
In Vientiane I obtained the papers I’d need to travel into the interior, walked unpaved streets among mildewed concrete buildings, witnessed the capital’s uneasy courtship with the West after years of self- imposed exile. My lavish hotel rose from a neighborhood of squalid shacks and patrolling soldiers. Rats swam past my table at a riverfront bar. At one Vientiane nightspot, I saw a Laotian rock band cover Pink Floyd’s “The Wall.” At a restaurant in the city’s center I braved Jeo Mengda, which the menu described as “Chilli sauce with the smell of the water bug served with boiled vegetables.” After six days in town, I caught a ride south, into the panhandle, to meet the incoming teams. Before long the Mi-17 slows, and its pilot sends us corkscrewing downward, fuselage shuddering, blades whacking the air. Some passengers shut their eyes. An army sergeant to my left keeps his open. He stares out the porthole between us, nodding, then glances over to me. I evidently look nervous. He taps my shoulder, jabs a thumb toward the cockpit. “This guy’s good,” he yells over the rotor.
“Yeah?” I say. “How can you tell?” I look to the cockpit and decide not to do it again: One of its occupants is now trying to catch the drips from the ceiling with a small towel, so that they don’t land on the man at the controls.
“He’s found a hole,” the sergeant says. “He waited until he found a hole, and now he’s gonna just circle down through the clouds until we’re below them.” Sure enough, our turn tightens until we’re heeled over hard, the spinning ground filling the portholes, and we have to steady the luggage to keep it from toppling. We drop as if sucked down a drain, the clouds a white blur as we pass through the overcast. When we level out, we’re just below the ceiling and just five hundred feet off the ground. Treetops seem to reach for us. We zigzag over the forest, the portholes pelted by rain, until a narrow strip of asphalt comes into view, its surface pitted with deep holes, shoulders scalloped and broken. We bank into a wide right turn to follow it.
The chopper fishtails eastward, slicing through the misty tentacles dangling from the clouds’ bellies, the ground rising gradually beneath us, and so we go for miles, sandwiched in a dwindling wafer of clear air between jungle and blindness. I stare down at the road, which looms closer with every minute. It’s cracked and gouged, and in places the pavement disappears completely, is replaced by stretches of cinnamon-colored mud and tiny ponds that reflect the overcast sky.
“Route 9,” the sergeant yells. The chief highway across the Laotian panhandle. A major link between Vietnam and Thailand. It doesn’t look the part, and I turn a troubling thought: This is a country without money for basic highway repairs. How much can it possibly invest in pilot training? In aircraft maintenance?
The rotors throb. Below, rice paddies shimmer. We cross unbroken miles of forest, then a river stained coffee brown, then a village of thatch-roofed huts on stilts bunched around a bare-dirt clearing, water buffalo loose among the buildings. A second village slides by, no more than 150 feet under the Mi-17’s wheels. I can see chickens on the ground and a knot of children peering up at us.
Just beyond the settlement I notice another feature of the landscape: a hole, an almost perfect circle, big enough to swallow one of the village’s huts. Another appears. Another. Still another. They’re everywhere, some of them fifty feet or more across, most filled with opaque water. They’re punched into rice paddies, bunched in threes and fours around villages. They line Route 9. I can see others hidden by the jungle, betrayed by round gaps in the canopy. In places they’re so tightly spaced the ground resembles the surface of a golf ball. Bomb craters.
The Mi-17’s whining turbines deepen in pitch. The big machine again slows, and ahead, through the veil of a stiffening rain, a patch of bright blue appears. The chopper flares, nose high, and settles slowly onto a concrete pad. The helicopter’s crew chief throws open the hatch to a shock of wind and rotor noise; I grab my backpack from the stack in the aisle and follow the sergeant out. A hard rain is falling, and we jog across spongy ground past already-parked Squirrels—and past a concrete pedestal that rises knee-high from the grass, its top adorned with a crumbling Communist star, a relic from the days when this was a North Vietnamese maintenance camp.
These days, the star is at odds with the self-contained Little America that waits beyond. Linking the landing zone with Route 9 is a straight, narrow dirt road, nicknamed Main Street, and around it rises a small town of fifty-three canvas wall tents called the Ban Alang Base Camp.
At the landing zone’s fringe the joint task force’s commander in Laos, Lt. Col. Kevin Smith, is yelling instructions to scurrying soldiers over the din of what’s now a downpour, apparently unfazed by his drenched T-shirt and shorts. Smith pauses a second to point me toward my tent. It’s prime Ban Alang real estate, one tent back from Main Street’s west side. I duck in and slip off my pack.
My home for the next month is about twelve feet by eight, with screened gables and a drooping roof supported by a center pole. A bare-bulb light fixture is duct-taped to the pole and plugged into a thick extension cord powered by a generator shack at the camp’s western edge. The tent is otherwise empty. As I’m assessing it, one of Smith’s aides sticks his head in, sees that I don’t have a cot, and tells me I’ll need to scrounge one up, so for the next half-hour I roam the camp.
Behind the tents platooned on the street’s west side, at the end of a long concrete sidewalk, stands a low cinderblock building housing the camp’s latrines, which are equipped with otherwise unattainable luxuries in this part of the world: porcelain sit-down toilets. Just north of the latrines stand the showers, floored with concrete, framed with bamboo, walled and roofed with nylon tarp. A bright royal blue, the tarps are ubiquitous at Ban Alang. They’re draped over the roofs of all the tents and overhang the narrow corridors between. They shroud piles of gear. They’ve served, over the years, myriad other functions, so many that they’re now considered indispensable; no other gear used by the U.S. military in Southeast Asia, save for duct tape and a tough nylon rope called “550 cord,” is so highly prized. From the air, Ban Alang’s blue stands out against the jungle’s thousand shades of green as if lit from within.
Just north of the landing zone on Main Street’s east side, two tin- roofed, open-sided barns stand side by side. In one, caged in thick chain- link, the teams store their shovels, picks, pumps, and surveying equipment. In the other is one of the camp’s social centers: a gym of benches and free weights, along with two hotel ice machines and a couple of big coolers of bottled water. Alongside the barns is a metal-framed canvas mess tent. A chain of portable banquet tables runs down its center, along with a couple dozen folding chairs; along its north wall is another table, on which sit a microwave oven and a pair of two-burner propane stoves. A twenty-five-inch color television and videotape player occupy a corner. The TV is Ban Alang’s readiest connection to the outside world, thanks to a satellite dish outside, and it runs pretty much around the clock.
A dishwashing station stands out back of the mess tent, and beside it, a small, open-air shack with a thatched roof, a Ping-Pong table centered on its concrete floor. A few yards from this modest game room is a tiny building of screened windows and woven-bamboo walls—the hospital. And a few yards more to the north is the most remarkable amenity of the camp’s many: Mama’s, a dispensary of good, cheap American and Lao meals, cold indigenous beer, cigarettes (a Thai version of Marlboros), soft drinks (mostly aggressively sweet Asian brands), and Oreos.
By the end of my search I’ve amassed one metal-framed cot with a defective crossbar that causes one end to sag; an army-issue folding field table, wooden, olive drab in color; one folding metal chair, swiped from the mess tent; and an electric fan, which I plug into the open socket.
It’s dark and raining harder than ever when I sprint across Main Street to a mandatory camp meeting. The mess tent is already crowded when I step through the door, shirt soaked, and into its sallow light. Half the Americans in camp sit at the banquet tables, which have been rearranged into a long-stemmed T; the rest line the walls. I find a place in a corner as Kevin Smith, sitting at the T’s bottom, stands. The room is instantly silent.
Smith is wearing blue jeans and a T-shirt emblazoned “Ohio State Athletics,” but even so manages to look like an army officer. His hair, turning to silver, is thick but cropped a shade too closely to be fashionable, and he stares a bit too hard, speaks a little too forcefully, rests his hands on his hips with too much of a “Go ahead, fuck with me” air to be anything but.
“Welcome,” he says. “I’m Lieutenant Colonel Smith. I’m the Detachment Three commander of Joint Task Force–Full Accounting. Welcome to Laos. Welcome to the Ban Alang Base Camp.” As he speaks, moths flit around the fluorescent strips overhead. The rain’s tattoo against the tent roof strengthens. Smith turns up his volume. “Before we go any further, I want you to remember this: For as long as you’re here, for the entire time you’re in Laos, safety is your number one priority.
“You’re in Laos in the rainy season,” he says. “In the rainy season, the ground gets saturated. Critters come out of the ground. And there are a lot of critters in Laos. Poisonous snakes.” He scans the room, as if to ensure that we’re paying attention. “Scorpions.” Another pause. “Centipedes.” Pause. “Leeches.” Finally: “Insects.” “Be aware of the critters. When you leave your tent at night, take your flashlight. Take a minute to check the ground outside your tent. Last mission we had a guy leaving his tent at night. Had to use the latrine. He didn’t usually take a flashlight with him, but for some reason he decided to this time, and he flicked it on as he was stepping out, and two feet away was a snake.” He squints, searching his memory. “What kind was it? Anybody remember?” “A big-eyed viper,” somebody says.
“That’s it,” Smith nods. “A big-eyed viper. You do not want to step on a big-eyed viper. When you go into the latrine at night, stand there for a minute at the door. Take a good look around. Make sure Jake No- Shoulders isn’t waiting to say hello to you.” We will have one day off during the four-week joint field activity, the colonel tells us. Every other day, weekends included, we’ll fly to our excavation sites. We are to keep in mind that doing business in Laos is expensive and that our carelessness can make it more so: A Squirrel costs the American taxpayer $11 a minute, every minute, and the Mi-17s, $45. “So pay attention,” he says. “Don’t keep that helicopter waiting. We spent $1.1 million on the last JFA on air transportation alone. That’s a bunch of change.” Outside, the rain is producing a loud hiss as it strikes gravel sprinkled atop Main Street. The colonel dispatches someone to fetch our next speaker; at Ban Alang’s north end, separated from the American compound by orange plastic fencing, fifteen wall tents house a Laotian military delegation led by a taciturn major. A few minutes later, the officer strides in with a half-dozen assistants. He faces a linguist from Joint Task Force-Full Accounting and commences a gruff monologue, punctuating his speech with little karate chops. “There are many dialects of Lao,” the translator relays. “Without official help, you could be misunderstood. The locals could be misunderstood.” Therefore, we Americans are never to communicate with the locals without first consulting a Laotian official. One will never be far away, as we may go nowhere alone: We cannot take off in a helicopter without a government escort, nor stray far from camp on foot. We may not stop en route to our excavation sites. We may not take photographs from the air.
The major wraps up his remarks by echoing Kevin Smith on safety. To ensure that we’re kept from harm, he adds, the People’s Democratic Republic has supplied Ban Alang with eighteen sentries armed with AK-47 assault rifles. “At night, the guards are on constant patrol,” he says, “so you don’t have to worry about things.” He smiles. Smith stands, thanks the major, then holds up a hand. “This is important,” he says. “This is not a sprint, people. This is a marathon. Day three, you’re full of vim and vigor, and you can’t wait to get out there because it’s something new. By day twenty-one, it’s starting to get pretty old.
“You don’t want to be the guy on day twenty-three who for twenty- two days straight has screened nothing but sterile soil and wishes he were anybody else, any place else—and who isn’t paying attention when that piece of bone turns up.
“Remember,” Smith says, pointing at us, “that you are here to send home a missing American who fought right where you stand. Whose family has waited for answers all these years. Remember why you’re here.”

Copyright © 2003 by Earl Swift. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company.

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Table of Contents

Contents I. In the Land of the Lost 1 II. The Missing 63 III. Bone Work 155 IV. Pieces of the Past 193 V. Answers 235 VI. Perseverance 269 Notes 287 Acknowledgments 305

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 12, 2004

    Un-PutDownable -- My Term for a GREAT book

    As a former Marine who endured the Siege of Khe Sanh on Hill 861 during the first four months of 1968, I found this book to be riveting and informative. Mr. Earl Swift's personal account of his month with an MIA recovery team in Laos is heartbreakingly sad and uplifting all at the same time. Even though his focus is on the recovery of remains from a specific Army helicopter crash in Laos in 1971, he makes mention of on-going searches for remains from World War II as well as Korea. Added in are specific references to Homer's Iliad and it makes the reader aware of how the need to 'bring them home again' is a universal, human desire.

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