DCHS alum part of mission to find missing servicemen in Vietnam (with video)

By 
Jason Stuart
Sunday, January 19, 2020
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U.S. Marine Corps Sgt. Lucas Robinson, who graduated from Dawson County High School in 2011 and is now a Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency recovery team explosive ordinance disposal technician, sweeps a unit for loose metal during a recovery mission in Lang Son Province, Vietnam, Nov. 5, 2019. For more than two decades the U.S. has conducted joint field activities with the governments of Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia to recover the remains of missing Americans. Throughout these countries, field teams continue to investigate crash and burial sites, as well as interview locals to gain additional knowledge. DPAA’s mission is to provide the fullest possible accounting of our missing personnel to their families and the nation.
(U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Rusty Frank)

Nearly 45 years after the Vietnam War ended with the fall of Saigon in April 1975, more than a thousand American servicemen from that tragic conflict still remain unaccounted for. But their country has not forgotten them, and the U.S. Department of Defense is still working diligently to try to find those missing service members to bring their remains home and give closure to their families. And on one of the most recent missions to Vietnam to search for one of those missing servicemen, a former Glendive resident and Dawson County High School graduate had the honor of joining in that effort.

U.S. Marine Corps Sgt. Lucas Robinson accompanied a team from the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency to Vietnam’s Lan Song Province in November 2019 to aid in the search for one of those missing Vietnam War servicemen.

Robinson moved to Glendive in second grade with his mother Wendi, who worked at Glendive Medical Center as a nurse, and stepfather Frank Robinson, who was an officer with the Glendive Police Department.

Robinson graduated from DCHS in 2011 and quickly decided on a career in the military, enlisting in the Marine Corps one month after graduation. As for why he decided on that career path, he said it was simply in keeping with a long family tradition.

“My father was in the Marine Corps for 30 years. My mom was in the Marine Corps too, and so were a lot of aunts and uncles,” he said.

Once in the USMC, Robinson decided on a specific line of work, one that due to its nature is volunteer-only and certainly requires nerves of steel. Robinson’s specific job is as an explosive ordinance disposal (EOD) technician. As for why he chose such a nerve-wracking and dangerous line of work, Robinson said it’s because it’s a job that presents a different challenge every day.

“One day we’re working on conventional ordinance, one day we’re working to dispose of an IED, and one day we’re working on more specialized munitions,” he said. “You’re always doing something different.”

Robinson added that he also enjoys the high esprit de corps found amongst his fellow EOD technicians.

“It’s also a volunteer-only job, so the workplace environment is great because everyone who’s there wants to be there,” he said.

Since March 2017, Robinson has been stationed at the USMC’s Camp Pendleton in Southern California. Prior to being moved to Camp Pendleton, he was assigned to the security forces at the U.S. Navy’s Naval Submarine Base Kings Bay in Georgia, the home port for the nation’s Ohio-class ballistic missile submarines attached to the Navy’s Atlantic Fleet, where he and the others in his unit were responsible for safeguarding America’s most sensitive and deadly weaponry. In 2018, Robinson was deployed to Australia, where he spent six months working alongside the Australian Army.

Then last year, an opportunity came around that Robinson immediately jumped at when the word came down to his unit that DPAA was looking for an EOD technician to volunteer to join one of its Recovery Teams headed to Vietnam to search for a missing serviceman.

“Luckily I was able to volunteer and got chosen to go,” Robinson said.

The fact that the mission was to Vietnam had some special meaning for him.

“It’s a great mission. I’ve had family members that were in the Marines that went to Vietnam and luckily they made it back,” Robinson said. “So to be able to go to Vietnam and search for this missing service member was awesome and just a humbling experience.”

The mission Robinson volunteered to go on had been in the making long before he ever got word of it. The DPAA has a methodical process they go through before undertaking such a mission. DPAA researchers spend time — sometimes years — researching DOD records to try to pinpoint a potential location for a missing service member. Then an investigative team composed of researchers and historians is dispatched to the site to search for further evidence, including interviewing possible witnesses on the potential location. Only after the investigative team has gathered enough evidence to confidently point to a specific location does the DPAA assemble a recovery team to head out in search of the missing service member.

A DPAA Recovery Team consists of more than a dozen individuals, with a mix of military and civilian personnel and each with specific areas of expertise. The team Robinson was part of included 18 people. Any actual excavation work to search for remains or material evidence is led by forensic archaeologists and forensic anthropologists. As for why the DPAA wanted to have an EOD technician on the team, Robinson succinctly explained the reason.

“In Vietnam, with the war over there, there’s ordinance there that was dropped all around that’s not accounted for,” Robinson said.

“We have a global mission and we search for American servicemen on past battlefields, so there’s a chance of coming across unexploded ordinance everywhere we go,” U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Ken Hoffman, public affairs officer for DPAA’s Indo-Pacific operations said.

In Vietnam, DPAA Recovery Teams are joined and assisted by Vietnamese counterparts. On the mission Robinson was on, around 50 Vietnamese were on hand to help the team.

“We work very closely with host nations, especially in Vietnam, where we have a close relationship with them and they’re very, very helpful,” Hoffman said. “They are a huge help to us.”

“From my experience, it’s a great relationship,” Robinson added. “They’re all very polite and helpful and are just as eager to find these remains as we are.”

The DPAA Recovery Team Robinson was part of spent 45 days in Lan Song Province — which borders China and was part of North Vietnam during the war — searching for what Hoffman confirmed was a missing USAF pilot from a downed fighter jet, one who did not make it back from one of the many bombing runs conducted over North Vietnam during the war.

The Recovery Team was not able to locate any remains of the missing serviceman on this trip, but it certainly was not a wasted trip, as they did recover evidence that proves they were looking in the right place.

“We did find some parts of life-support equipment,” Robinson said. “It was actually a part of the service member’s parachute.”

Because they did find parts of the missing serviceman’s life-support equipment, Hoffman said the site will remain open and DPAA will keep searching it.

If any remains are found, they would be transferred to the DPAA’s lab in Hawaii, the largest forensic skeletal identification lab in the world, where scientists work to identify the remains. If DNA analysis is required, that work is done at a lab at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware.

Hoffman said that including the service member Robinson’s team was searching for, 1,587 Americans who served in Vietnam remain missing.

For Robinson — who fortunately did not come across any unexploded ordinance he had to defuse during the mission — the chance to be part of a DPAA Recovery Team was something he relished, and something he said he would absolutely do again if given the opportunity.

“I had a great time,” he said. “It was a great team and a great work experience for me professionally as well.”

Robinson said he was very pleased that they did uncover some physical evidence which hopefully will lead DPAA to an eventual recovery and finally bring this fallen American airman home.

“I thought it went great,” Robinson said of the mission. “I was just glad we were able to find some life-support equipment. That means we’re one step closer to finding a missing service member.”

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