Repatriating America’s Fallen

~ “Find a group of people who challenge and inspire you, and spend a lot of time with them, and it will change your life.” ~ Amy Poehler

In the summer of 2019, I joined a crew out of the University of Wisconsin, working to recover a missing service personnel from WWII who had gone MIA in Belgium. The group works in conjunction with the DPAA (Department of POW/MIA Accounting Agency) which fulfills the nation’s promise to maximize the number of missing service personnel accounted for. Currently, more than 82,000 Americans remain missing from conflicts all over the world. Our goal was to account for 1 of them.

For around 9 hours a day, 6 days a week, for 3 weeks, the team of about 20 people worked tirelessly to understand the site and find any remains possible. On Sundays we would visit museums or cemeteries, urging us to continue our progress and reminding us why we do what we do. In nearby Bastogne at a 101st Airborne Division museum, a quote stuck out to me [originally in French]:

“Searching after fallen comrades is a hard job to do. The deep sheet of snow covered a lot of fallen soldiers on both sides and it took days, weeks and sometimes months to recover dead bodies.”

As it turns out, recovering dead bodies can even take decades.

For me, the most powerful Sunday trip happened on the last day, as we visited the Ardennes American cemetery. Hundreds of white crosses and stars of David dotted the field and wandering through them it is hard to feel anything but solemn and thankful. One cross stated that 13 unknowns were buried beneath it and it started to rile me up that there are no answers for those 13 families. DNA technology is advanced enough now to make something happen – so what’s the holdup? The entire excavation we had just completed could have rerouted funds to find answers for all of these unknowns. This lit a fire for me.

In the small visitors center a binder lay with pink squares correlating to burials in the cemetery. Upon closer inspection I noticed what pink meant–“unknown service member”. The ’13 unknown’ cross I had come across only scratched the surface for the potential in this cemetery. This single cemetery. The benefits to going through these cemeteries worldwide would be astounding for families.

Towards the end of our time at this cemetery, I was looking at the lists of the missing service personnel engraved on the central monument. Near the top of one of the lists, with a rosette next to his name, was 2nd Lt. Walter Stone – a service member accounted for by this Wisconsin-based team. To come back to find more answers, to recover more people and to put more rosettes next to names would be an absolute honor, and another reason I am in this career. Here’s to future recoveries.