Maj. Alexander Vanston, commanding officer of Headquarters Company East for Marine Corps Logistics Command, was the speaker at the annual POW/MIA breakfast on Friday at Marine Corps Logistics Base-Albany. Vanston previously served as a member of Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command. (Jennifer Parks)
MCLB-ALBANY — The promise of never giving up on service members lost applies not just to those who have been missing, but those still active as well.
Marine Corps Logistics Base-Albany hosted its annual POW/MIA breakfast Friday, held in conjunction with National POW/MIA Recognition Day to honor the community’s former prisoners of war and to acknowledge those still unaccounted for from past conflicts.
Speaking at the breakfast was Maj. Alexander Vanston, commanding officer of Headquarters Company East for Marine Corps Logistics Command and former member of Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command.
Vanston was called to serve on the team in 2006. During his time as a recovery team leader, he led recovery missions and conducted future site surveys throughout Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. In 2007, then a captain, he was selected to serve as the executive officer of the team’s fourth detachment and as a worldwide recovery team leader — making him responsible for mission planning/staffing and resourcing for recovery operations, and for obtaining permissions from government officials, land owners, contracting heavy equipment and leading teams in Germany, Austria, France, Belgium and Czech Republic.
Vanston said that, during his time with the team, there was an average of roughly two or three sets of remains found over the course of several weeks. There are thousands of files it goes through at a time in the effort to recover those yet to be accounted for. The mission time frame is generally for 30-65 days, with eight to 12 hours of digging each day.
“The board determines which cases to go after,” the major said. “They are usually the ones in urban areas that people are likely to dig through or develop.”
Depending on the terrain involved, the team will use anything from horses to rafts to get to where they need to go while carrying with them 10,000 pounds of equipment. There are grids mapped out measuring four-by-four meters that are dug out one at a time. The size of a site may range from a single grave site to an area larger than a football field, such as in the area of a suspected plane crash, Vanston said.
His first mission was the site of a training crash in Hawaii that took place in 1943. Weather conditions made it impossible to screen what was found on site, so over the course of 68 days, soil was dug out by hand and the materials were taken to another location to be dried out and screened.
“I happened to be digging when I found the cockpit,” he said. “You stick your head in there and realize you are where he was. It was amazing.”
Vanston went on to tell of other missions from places such Cambodia and Austria, a few of which included family members of the lost service members who were involved in the search process. His last mission took place in Germany, where the site of a plane crash connected to the Battle of Hurtgen Forest in 1944 turned up two sets of human remains.
The two lost service members had been buried in their fighting positions, and had everything still with them down to their dog tags.
“I found their wallets and was able to go through their wallets,” Vanston recalled. “You don’t usually find remains that intact. It was incredible.”
When remains are found, they are often put in a casket draped with an American flag and given a ceremony at Hickam Field in Hawaii, Vanston said.
From the major’s point of view, there is a deep obligation to keep looking for those who have yet to be brought home — and it’s not just because the family members need closure.
“Remembering them and honoring them is key, because that is part of the promise this country has made to these individuals — that we will not rest until we bring people home,” he said. “It is important for current service members to know that, if they fall, we will not stop looking for them.”
As of Wednesday, the Defense Prisoner of War/Missing Personnel Office counted 83,343 service members still missing. This includes 73,661 from World War II, 7,906 from the Korean War, 126 from the Cold War, 1,644 from the Vietnam War and six from Iraq and other conflicts.