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NEWS | Aug. 13, 2009

Recovery mission takes a wild turn

By Recovery mission takes a wild turn 437th Airlift Wing Public Affairs

A member of Team Charleston recently returned from an eventful mission in Laos with the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command .

Master Sgt. Wesley Housel, a member of the 437th Operations Support Squadron, volunteered to take part in one of these missions. According to Sergeant Housel this was a task he has always wanted to be a part of.

"What is important to remember while on these types of missions is safety is paramount. You have to remember that you are there for a fallen comrade, because the conditions you operate in will destroy your morale very quickly if you do not maintain focus," Sergeant Housel said.

The mission of JPAC is to achieve the fullest possible accounting of all Americans missing as a result of the nation's past conflicts.

In order for any JPAC team to conduct its mission they need a forensic anthropologist, field medic, explosive ordnance disposal technician, life support investigator and a forensic photographer. JPAC also used a handful of Lao locals to help them carry their equipment and build anything the team needed at the time.

Recovery missions can last anywhere from 35 to 60 days depending on location, terrain and the nature of the recovery. Crash sites are blocked off 4-meter-by 4-meter squares and the soil is then sifted with a high pressure hose and a quarter-inch screen. If JPAC members think they find any human remains or life support equipment, it is then sent back to the Central Identification Laboratory at Hickam AFB, Hawaii, to confirm what it is.

The mission Sergeant Housel's team was tasked with was the search and recovery of a lieutenant who was shot down in Laos in 1969. The team had the challenge of conducting field operations in the middle of Laos's rainy season.

"After the rain rolled through, the humidity would kick in and South Carolina would feel like a cold place compared to Laos," said Sergeant Housel.

The rainy season was not the only hurdle the team had to overcome. The terrain was very steep at the crash site and there was very thick vegetation.

"The average incline at our crash site was probably about 30 percent," Sergeant Housel said.

In order for the team to get to the crash site they would take a 25-minute helicopter ride every morning from their hotel into the jungle.

On the morning of July 27 the team boarded an aircraft they typically did not use and took off from a new area.

"We started to lift off and the pilot set it [the helicopter] back down ... and took right off again," said Sergeant Housel.

According to witnesses, the helicopter slid back and the main rotor struck a tree behind it. When it struck the tree, the rotor actually stopped in the tree, the helicopter spun and landed upside-down.

"The next thing I know is I'm upside-down in my seat and that the importance of wearing a seatbelt is true," Sergeant Housel explained. "I told my buddies to stay in their seatbelts - not that polite - because we didn't know if we were done rolling. We spun one-and-a-half more times and rolled one-and-a-half more times. The helicopter took off July 27 at 7:58 a.m. and we landed at 7:59 a.m. ... upside-down."

Every member aboard the helicopter remained calm and exited the aircraft accordingly. The professionalism of the military showed through even after the crash. Then one simple word turned an orderly evacuation into everyone running for the hills.

"Each member on the helicopter was getting out cool and calm ... until someone yelled 'fire,' Then it was every man, woman and child for themselves," Sergeant Housel joked.

While team members faced perilous conditions, the dedication and attention to safety Sergeant Housel displayed ensured the mission was a success in more ways than one.

Editors Note: Sept. 18 was declared National Prisoner of War/Missing in Action Day by President Barack Obama. Please use this day to remember service men and women who were held captive or lost.