HomeNewsFeaturesDisplay

At recovery sites, memories of lost loved ones keep troops focused on grave mission

A member of the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency hikes a trail down from an excavation site March 17, 2018, in Quang Ngai province, Vietnam, where an American pilot crashed during the Vietnam War. A joint recovery team climbed 700 feet in elevation along a half-mile trail every day to the site as part of the mission. (U.S. Army photo by Sean Kimmons)

A member of the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency hikes a trail down from an excavation site March 17, 2018, in Quang Ngai province, Vietnam, where an American pilot crashed during the Vietnam War. A joint recovery team climbed 700 feet in elevation along a half-mile trail every day to the site as part of the mission. (U.S. Army photo by Sean Kimmons)

A member of the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency hikes a trail down from an excavation site March 17, 2018, in Quang Ngai province, Vietnam, where an American pilot crashed during the Vietnam War. A joint recovery team climbed 700 feet in elevation along a half-mile trail every day to the site as part of the mission. (U.S. Army photo by Sean Kimmons)

A member of the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency hikes a trail down from an excavation site March 17, 2018, in Quang Ngai province, Vietnam, where an American pilot crashed during the Vietnam War. A joint recovery team climbed 700 feet in elevation along a half-mile trail every day to the site as part of the mission. (U.S. Army photo by Sean Kimmons)

Kelly McKeague, director of the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, left center in the second row, poses for a photograph with recovery team members March 17, 2018, at a site in Quang Ngai province, Vietnam, where an American pilot crashed during the Vietnam War. Air Force Senior Airman Tycoria Johnson, second from right in the first row, followed in the footsteps of her father, Army Sgt. 1st Class Tommy Murphy, who was killed along with other DPAA members in a helicopter crash in Vietnam in 2001. (U.S. Army photo by Sean Kimmons)

Kelly McKeague, director of the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, left center in the second row, poses for a photograph with recovery team members March 17, 2018, at a site in Quang Ngai province, Vietnam, where an American pilot crashed during the Vietnam War. Air Force Senior Airman Tycoria Johnson, second from right in the first row, followed in the footsteps of her father, Army Sgt. 1st Class Tommy Murphy, who was killed along with other DPAA members in a helicopter crash in Vietnam in 2001. (U.S. Army photo by Sean Kimmons)

A Vietnamese worker clears jungle vegetation from an excavation site March 17, 2018, in Quang Ngai province, Vietnam, where an American pilot crashed during the Vietnam War. (U.S. Army photo by Sean Kimmons)

A Vietnamese worker clears jungle vegetation from an excavation site March 17, 2018, in Quang Ngai province, Vietnam, where an American pilot crashed during the Vietnam War. (U.S. Army photo by Sean Kimmons)

QUANG NGAI PROVINCE, Vietnam (AFNS) -- The day Army Sgt. 1st Class Tommy Murphy died is still engrained into his daughter's mind.

It was April 7, 2001, and Tycoria Johnson was just 9 years old. On that Saturday, Murphy, along with six other American service members and nine Vietnamese counterparts, departed on an MI-17 helicopter to investigate a potential recovery site.

They were part of a Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency mission in search of the remains of fallen service members from the Vietnam War.

Her father was a team sergeant, she said, who supervised and did much of the planning for the team.

But as the weather worsened, the helicopter veered off course and collided into a mountain hidden by clouds in central Vietnam. No one survived.

In her father’s footsteps

Johnson, now a senior airman based in Japan, recently volunteered for a joint mission with DPAA, where her father once worked as a mortuary affairs specialist.

"He would talk about his missions a lot," she said, recalling the videos he would show her of people digging at excavation sites. "I knew that he enjoyed it and I think he would be surprised that I actually signed up to do it."

With her skills as a radio communications operator in the Air Force, Johnson was sent to Quang Ngai Province -- not far from her father's crash site -- to augment a recovery team.

Atop a small mountain covered in a thick jungle, the team's goal was to find a Marine pilot lost after his A-4E Skyhawk attack jet had crashed there during the war.

"You feel that you're a part of something bigger [than yourself]," she said at the excavation site in mid-March.

For about a month, her team lived in tents lifted slightly above muddy, rocky terrain on plywood platforms. The humid heat stifled the air as insects and dangerous creatures, such as snakes and scorpions, lurked nearby.

Each day, team members climbed 700 feet in elevation along a half-mile trail back up to the site.

While it can take months to even years to find remains that lead to the identification of a missing service member at these sites, team members understand why they still do it.

"Speaking from experience, you want to have something of your family member," Johnson, 26, of Prince George, Virginia, said. "Just having someone take the time and search for them also shows that the military cares for [them] as a human being."

Searching for closure

Sgt. 1st Class Zachary Plante, the mountaineering expert on Johnson's team, spoke of the deadly encounters his unit saw in Operation Hammer Down while deployed to Afghanistan with the 25th Infantry Division.

The air assault offensive in June 2011 was supposed to last about a day, he said, but it turned into a weeklong battle with Taliban fighters.

While some of his fellow Soldiers did not make it out alive, they did return home, even if in a flag-draped coffin to comfort mourning friends and family.

In his fourth recovery mission with DPAA, Plante said those memories continue to motivate him to recover as many Americans as possible. In Vietnam, there are more than 1,200 still missing.

"We all lost people downrange, but we saw them come home," Plante, 40, of Orange, Massachusetts, said.

Similar events also weigh on Sgt. 1st Class Christopher Krogman, the team sergeant, who has deployed five times and lost Soldiers in combat.

"It's always hard losing a service member, but by bringing them back we were able to have closure immediately," Krogman, 35, Bend, Oregon, said. "With these [missing] service members, the units never really had closure."

Living in the middle of a jungle surrounded by mountains also gave team members a new appreciation for what Vietnam War-era troops endured in their fighting.

"A lot of the terrain we've been in, I can't imagine moving through it," said Plante, a former mountaineering instructor at the Army Ranger School. "They were in the thick of it."

For the most part, the team looked past the uncomfortable times and to the overall purpose of the mission.

"You can do anything for 30 days, regardless of how bad the conditions are, you can do it," Krogman said. "We harp that from the very beginning and they adopt that."

Crash anniversary

Johnson needed perhaps the least convincing to drive on with the mission.

"I feel like I'm completing what he started," she said of her father. "It pushes me to keep going, especially with the hike. It's not an easy job, but it is rewarding."

When her father and the 15 others died in that helicopter crash, it had a devastating ripple effect across the entire agency, where many of them worked.

Both the incoming and outgoing commanders for the detachment in Vietnam were also on the helicopter.

"It was absolutely terrible," said Johnie Webb, the agency's deputy of outreach and communications. "You never want to lose anybody, but here we are trying to recover those guys who lost their lives in the Vietnam War and we lose more of our guys."

At the time, a recovery team in Laos was about to leave the country when DPAA officials asked some of them to divert to Vietnam and help recover the bodies of their fellow team members.

"We got more than we needed," Webb said of the volunteers. "We brought our guys back home and did the autopsy and identification at our facility [in Hawaii]."

Webb said Johnson's father was one of his good friends. He recalled that he and others in the office nicknamed him "gentle giant" because of his muscular frame.

"I'd known Tommy for many years," said Webb, who has spent four decades at the agency. "One of the things about his [military occupational specialty], which is now 92M, is that it's a very small MOS."

Before Johnson left for Vietnam, Webb had the chance to speak with her at the agency's headquarters in Hawaii.

"I'm impressed with her," he said from his office. "She told me, 'Well, that's where my dad lost his life, so I need to go over there and see for myself what it is like.'

"He would have been proud of her."

Johnson plans to attend a memorial ceremony Saturday at the crash site, where a plaque is now on display honoring those who were killed, including her father.

Engage

Facebook Twitter
DYK: Aircraft have lifespans! Like humans, they require check-ups in the form of maintenance inspections to prolong their ability to fly. These "checks" prevent in-flight system failures which ultimately protects aircrew and passengers. Learn more from the 86th Maintenance Squadron at Ramstein Air Base, Germany on what it takes to correct issues so aircraft can stay airborne.
WATCH: United States Air Force pilots talk about the importance of Exercise Saber Strike 18 as they refuel over the Baltic Sea on June 18, 2018. Saber Strike 18 is a long-standing training exercise designed to enhance interoperability between the U.S. and our allies. The training focused on improving land and air operational capabilities between the U.S. and our NATO allies. (U.S. Air National Guard video by: Master Sgt. Wolfram M. Stumpf)
Check out some shots from yesterday's All-Star Armed Services Classic Championship softball game in Washington, D.C. This event, part of MLB’s All-Star Week, pays tribute to the men and women of the Armed Forces. Washington Nationals U.S. Army
Air Force and U.S. Army coed softball teams render military honors during the playing of the National Anthem during the All-Star Armed Services Classic Championship softball game, Washington, D.C., July 13, 2018. This event, part of MLB’s All-Star Week, pays tribute to the men and women of the Armed Forces. Washington Nationals
Great way to lead by example!
The United States Air Force is facing a pilot shortage. To help solve the challenge, the Aircrew Crisis Task Force was recently created to provide strategic direction and actionable recommendations to senior leaders on how to solve the aircrew manning crisis. FULL STORY: https://go.usa.gov/xUb3z
Your United States Air Force news: ✓ A B-52 crew assists in a search and rescue operation off the coast of Guam ✓ An Afghan pilot class graduates in the Czech Republic ✓ The Air Force is using innovative approaches to training pilots to make the process faster and more efficient
Now that’s how weathermen work! Air Force Reserve Hurricane Hunters fly weather reconnaissance missions into Tropical Storm Chris and Tropical Storm Beryl. http://www.af.mil/News/Article-Display/Article/1569944/hurricane-hunters-fly-tropical-storms-beryl-chris/
The F-22 Raptor's combination of stealth, supercruise, maneuverability, and integrated avionics, coupled with improved supportability, represents an exponential leap in warfighting capabilities. The F-22 cannot be matched by any known or projected fighter aircraft. Maintaining these aircraft can involve a bit of a learning curve. Airmen at KadenaAirBase use past technology to help learn how to work with the undefeated Raptor. FULL STORY: http://www.kadena.af.mil/News/Article-Display/Article/1567295/hard-to-raptor-head-around/
Help us out! Can you caption this photo?
The B-52 Stratofortress has sniper pods that provide improved long-range target detection/identification and continuous stabilize surveillance for all missions, including close air support of ground forces. Air Force Global Strike Command crew members on a B-52 were able to spot a historic Pacific Island style canoe so that the U.S. Coast Guard could rescue the six passengers!
For the past 60 years, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA, has continually helped us maintain a technological edge against our advarsaries. Together with the Air Force Research Laboratory - AFRL, a fusion of ideas is leading to newly highlighted innovations.
SOUND ON! Celebrate freedom with the sound of freedom! Happy Independence Day!
On this edition of Around the Air Force the 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron flies missions into… https://t.co/6ybEA7FPbH
An #Airman from @NCAirGuard was selected for commander of an “out-of-the-box” deployable airbase concept that was t… https://t.co/x8TG3fPyiq
Computer language skills are vital for weathering the current sea change in battlefield analytics, big data & artif… https://t.co/AYQ9Py8Yoa
Every day, #TotalForce #Airmen make history. But who keeps track of our historic firsts, or set & broken records? F… https://t.co/s4lQ0WBaCh
Alaska Air Guardsmen jump into action in support of the #HurricaneFlorence humanitarian assistance effort.… https://t.co/uHIBefOvRP
Engineering and Installation #Airmen create the blueprint for communications capability for nearly every U.S. milit… https://t.co/yNo9r1sKF3
.@USAFHealth supports @GenDaveGoldfein's call to revitalize #squadrons by rolling out a new health care model at th… https://t.co/4G4M0IRTNL
.@AirNatlGuard units from 14 states are stepping up to help #HurricaneFlorence response efforts. #Readinesshttps://t.co/88BbpbWjZt
On your marks! The #AirForce Marathon is tomorrow @WrightPattAFB! https://t.co/nR2T1BS4Ql
It's #FollowFriday and today it's all about @AETCommand! Where America’s sons and daughters – young men and women w… https://t.co/twJsQa9URn
.@NellisAFB partners up with the @DeptVetAffairs to be the first base to use Tele-Intensive Care Units in their med… https://t.co/2NtQSSKRaG
RT @DeptofDefense: Planning for the future? You should know what benefits are available. In addition to the High-3 or new #BlendedRetiremen
New fuel support tank installed @RobinsAFB_GA will allow the 78th Fuels Management flight to increase its support o… https://t.co/Nixuhkh8fQ
#USAF Senior Airman Forrest Privette, 18th #CivilEngineer Squadron driver operator, cools down after climbing 110 f… https://t.co/Lq59leyCzm
The winners of the 2018 #AirForce Association Outstanding Civilian #Airmen Employee of the Year awards have been an… https://t.co/2JcIeUshjX
Downrange an #Airman may have to depend on their #Wingman to save their life; luckily, the #AirForce trains for tha… https://t.co/4KLw1HSAWS
#MoodyAFB's 23rd MXS #Airmen played a vital role in helping secure an #AirForce-wide 200 percent ‘war-ready’ engine… https://t.co/wWWx6vEQ6f
This year marks the 25th anniversary of partnership between @155thARW #Airmen and the #Czech Republic, what better… https://t.co/OyygU2xZ0f
RT @SecAFOfficial: I’ll be speaking at the Aviation Workforce Symposium at 10:45am EST. Tune in to the @FAANews Facebook page to watch live…
RT @AirmanMagazine: During the Berlin Airlift, 23 tons of candy dropped from the sky to give the children of West Berlin a sweet taste of f…