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IDMTS search for MIAs, provide care in Laos

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Nestor Cruz
  • 18th Wing Public Affairs
A group of Kadena medical professionals are living up to the POW/MIA motto "you are not forgotten" and bringing medical assistance to those in need at the same time. 

Independent Duty Medical Technicians from the 18th Medical Group here routinely deploy with the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command to Laos. Their mission: to retrieve the remains of fallen service members. 

"Our main goal is to help the families of our service members," said Maj. (Dr.) Aasif Mirza, 18th Medical Operations Squadron. "We also provide humanitarian aid to the local population and medical aid to our own team members." 

JPAC teams, composed of archeologists, anthropologists, explosive ordnance disposal technicians, communications specialists and members from all military branches, travel to areas believed to contain the remains of U.S. service members. 

Each team member has a vital role to play, starting with the EOD technicians who sweep suspected burial sites with metal detectors looking for items such as dog tags, according to Master Sgt. Patrick McEneany, one of the IDMTs. 

"If it's an aircraft crash site, the team searches for aircrew life support equipment, trying to determine if the aircrew was still in the aircraft when it went down," added the sergeant. 

Digging and screening are the primary duties of a JPAC team member, regardless of service branch or job specialty. The team digs at the recovery site, screening chunks of dirt and recovering artifacts and remains including bones, aircraft pieces, ordnance and uniform items. 

"On some missions we could be out in the field up to 30 days," said Master Sgt. Victor Rosario, an IDMT with the 18th MDOS. 

While recovering remains is the team's primary mission, it also sets aside a day or two for a medical civic action project, or MEDCAP, where the team provides medical services to all the residents in the local village. The team might treat up to 300 patients in a single day, according to Sergeant Rosario. 

"The Laotian government deemed it a 'quid pro quo' for the JPAC team to bring a physician to help with humanitarian work," said Col. (Dr.) William Butler, 18th MDG deputy commander. "It's a great arrangement because everybody wins." 

IDMT's face many challenges during their deployment. The lack of support staff means that technicians must be able to perform multiple medical tasks and practice field medicine. Additionally, the language barrier means extra time and care must be spent communicating with the patients. 

"One of the challenges is that English is not commonly spoken in Laos, so we often work through interpreters," said Doctor Mirza. "Interpreters are not necessarily well-versed with medical terms, and in remote areas, some villages would have a different dialect than the standard Laotian language. So now we have a patient speaking their dialect to our interpreter who translates the message into Lao for another interpreter who tells me in medical terms what's going on." 

Weather conditions and infrastructure also add an extra burden to the technician's job. Because of poor roads in Laos, the team travels mostly by helicopter to reach remote areas. Even then, "we can't always fly, especially if the weather is bad," said Sergeant McEneany. 

IDMT's spend approximately two months on each mission, enduring heat, fatigue and language barriers. But by mission-end, they feel a sense of satisfaction for helping others. 

"Before we head for home, we donate whatever medical supplies and medicine we have left to the local village," said Doctor Mirza. "It feels great knowing we helped improve the lives of others." 

IDMT's also conduct JPAC missions in Cambodia, Vietnam, North Korea, Burma and Germany.