My favorite part of day #4 was on the military base of Hickam and the tour of the JPAC facility. I don’t know how to describe this adventure. It was V.I.P. and very behind the scenes.
JPAC stands for Joint P.O.W./M.I.A. Accounting Command and this military organization is responsible for finding and bringing home all M.I.A. and P.O.W. soldiers. This is a global effort employing both military and civilian personnel.
So. Day Four – we started the tour by grouping around a tour guide in front of a glassed-in highly secure forensic lab called the Central Identification Laboratory. From our vantage point we could see people moving about the lab, carefully negotiating their way around rows and rows of what looked to be shiny stainless steel examination tables. On these tables were carefully unidentified objects and, upon closer scrutiny, bones. Some were partial skeletons. Some were mysterious fragments. All were meticulously laid out.
As — explained the basics of each mission and each recovery the magnitude of JPACS work was not fully realized by any of us. We listened with polite interest, our faces bland. But as he moved on to the rules of identification (gender, age, ethnicity) and the sensitivity of notification and as we stared at the shiny tables behind him it all became crystal clear, like dawn spreading light on a new day. On one table, the gentle curvature of a spine, each vertebra equidistant from the next. On another table, the arch of an arm…
These were real people. From the anthropologist leaning over the bones to the bones themselves. Somebody’s son. Somebody’s father. Suddenly I saw a film reel running backwards. The bones were dead soldiers lying silent amidst bombs, gunfire, shrapnel exploding around them. They were once fresh-faced, beaming boys. Eager and unflinchingly proud to defend their countries. Every bone represented life itself. There on that table lay the remains of a loved one. A missed one. Definitely not forgotten. Certainly not left behind.
postscript: this Friday, July 27th JPAC will be hosting an Arrival Ceremony. The remains of three individuals will be coming home to Hickam to receive full military honors. Today was the last day to request permission to attend this ceremony.