The Official Voice of Vietnam Veterans of America, Inc. ®
An organization chartered by the U.S. Congress

August/September 2003
FEATURE ARTICLE
   
 

A First by the JTF: Using Dogs to Dig for MIA Remains

BY JIM BELSHAW


By eleven o'clock, Max and Panzer suggested it was time to end the workday. The two German Shepherds had done everything asked of them, but as morning crept toward noon and the sun rose higher in Vietnam's sky, priorities changed, and the search for shade to escape the brutal heat took precedence over the search for the remains of men still missing from Vietnam's brutal war.

The dogs worked in 15-minute stretches, first one, then the other, alternating to minimize the drain on their energy. They kept cool with splashes of water and towels pulled from a cooler. But the dogs had made a prodigious climatological leap, going from winter in Rhode Island to the stifling heat of Southeast Asia. German Shepherds are known for their versatility and ability to adapt, but Max and Panzer had never been tested like this.

"They'd never done anything like it,'' their handler, Rhode Island State Trooper and former Marine Matt Zarrella, said.

Neither had he.

Zarrella and his search dogs, specially trained to locate cadavers at crime scenes, had been asked by Joint Task Force-Full Accounting (JTF-FA) in 2002 to come to Vietnam to aid in the search for remains of Ameican servicemen still listed as Missing In Action. Working dozens of searches involved in eight MIA cases, Zarrella said the dogs, 13-year-old Panzer and 1-year-old Maximus, performed admirably.

"I thought they did very well for what was asked in such a short time frame,'' he said.

When Zarrella joined the Rhode Island State Police, there was no K-9 unit, and no particular organizational interest in starting one. He had asked about developing a K-9 team while in the police academy but found no one willing to pursue the idea. Not long after he graduated from the academy and began work as a police officer, a triple homicide presented Rhode Island law enforcement with a problem - no bodies. The problem became an opportunity for Zarrella.

"We were borrowing search-and-rescue dogs from other states,'' Zarrella said. "They couldn't find anything, either. Then one day a woman out walking her pet in the same area found the bodies. Her dog was scratching at something on the ground. She called the police. They dug. They found the bodies. I was so upset over that I said, 'Okay, that's it. We're going to have our own K-9 program if I have to do it myself.' ''

And he did have to do it himself.

He began with his own dog, a 130-pound Swiss Mountain Dog named Hannibal, Zarrella's family pet. He went to Connecticut, where retired state police officer Andy Rebmann trained dogs. Rebmann led the Connecticut State Police K-9 program for 20 years. In Zarrella's estimation, he was the best in the country.

After examining Hannibal, Rebmann agreed to take them on, working with Zarrella one on one whenever Zarrella could find time to drive to Connecticut for training. With the training complete and Hannibal certified as a search dog, Zarrella went to his superiors.

"They said, 'Okay, whatever,' '' Zarrella said. "But I wasn't back a week when a kid went missing in a remote part of the state. He was missing for two days. They asked if I wanted to take a shot. Hannibal found the kid in 40 minutes. He was still alive.''

The story made the front pages of local newspapers. Suddenly, Zarrella was in the K-9 business. He went back to Rebmann in Connecticut to train Hannibal to be a cadaver search dog.

"That was the big thing for me,'' Zarrella said. "It meant we could find buried bodies,
disarticulated remains, dismemberments, blood spatters at crime scenes, and - though I didn't realize it at the time - MIAs in Vietnam.''

In the summer of 2002, now working with his veteran dog, Panzer, a German Shepherd donated to the state police, and his newest dog, Maximus, a German Shepherd pup six months old when Zarrella rescued him from the dog pound, the state police officer picked up a phone message from a military colonel in Hawaii.

"So I call,'' Zarrella said. "He says they're looking for advice on how to put a dog team together to travel to Vietnam to look for human remains. We're not talking about a body that's been in the ground for six months or a year, nice and neat in its own grave. We're talking about 30-year-old graves, more than likely disturbed in some way.''

Zarrella advised JTF-FA for three months, providing logistical and training overviews for an effort never before attempted in the search for MIA remains in Vietnam. One day in a conversation with a civilian official from CILHI (Central Identification Laboratory, Hawaii), as Zarrella laid out the history of cadaver search dogs, he made an offer.

"I said, 'Look, if you're looking for a dog handler, I'm your guy,' '' Zarrella said, laughing at the memory of it. "I tried to be humbly funny about it. I don't like to boast about anything. But Vietnam? And I'm a former Marine? If they were going to send anybody, I wanted to be the one to go.''

In October, JTF-FA made the formal request. Zarrella rushed to finish Max's training and certification. It was imperative that he take both dogs to insure that even if one were injured, he would still be able to carry on with the work. In February, he left for two weeks of training in Hawaii. Then it was on to Vietnam.

Working out of Saigon, he and the dogs made dozens of searches involving eight separate cases, one an aircraft crash, the others reportedly individual burial sites. Each morning he and the dogs traveled by helicopter to the sites. Working in environments that went from heavy jungle to open rice paddy, Zarrella and JTF-FA team members met with Vietnamese witnesses, mapped out search areas, and began work.

If the dog alerted, Zarrella reported it to the team and anthropologists dug test pits. Soon he discovered the test pits needed to be expanded.

"The way they were going about it was wrong,'' he said. "The dog alerts to the strongest odor. A lot of times the scent accumulates down-slope from the body or downstream from the body. The dog doesn't always alert at the grave source. They dug in the areas where the dogs alerted, but they weren't finding anything. They finally learned that they had to dig a larger area. It's possible the bones are gone, but the scent remained in the soil for years. They decided to leave the bigger digs for the R&E [Recovery and Excavation] teams. So we flagged and mapped those areas.''

The first site proved the most promising, though the evidence they found still must be tested. In 1966, a fighter jet took ground fire near Hon Dat, a rural area in the southernmost province, Kien Giang. A witness told local authorities that he had retrieved and buried body parts.

"We had an alert in the back of his house,'' Zarrella said. "Within 10 meters of the alert, they dug down 6 inches and found bone fragments. They said they found life support equipment that was on the pilot's body, too - a zipper to a flight suit, that sort of thing. But they still have to run tests on the bones to see if they're human.''

Zarrella hopes to return to Vietnam for more searches. He is confident the dogs will perform well and that the second time will be smoother than the first, since he, the dogs, and the Vietnamese had come to come to terms with one another. The Vietnamese were wary of the dogs, Zarrella said; and he was not too comfortable with the Vietnamese at first.

He had joined the Marine Corps five years after the end of the Vietnam War. There were many Vietnam veterans in the Corps, and he said they made it clear to him that the Vietnamese weren't the best people to be around.

"Then suddenly, I find myself in Vietnam, shaking their hands, working alongside them, looking for Americans who died there,'' he said. "It was trying for me at first. I had not prepared myself for that. I was so busy getting the dogs ready that I hadn't thought much about how I'd feel. After a couple of weeks, I started to relax and so did the Vietnamese.''

The diplomats, as it turned out, were Panzer and Max, quietly building bridges.

"The dogs were the great ice breaker,'' Zarrella said. "The Vietnamese were nervous around them at first. They didn't know how to approach them, didn't know how to be around them. But then they relaxed. They're people, too, and the war's long over. They were cordial. Some of the senior officials took the dogs by the leash and went over to their friends.

The dogs didn't care who they were with. The dogs held no grudges. They didn't care what you looked like. It only makes sense. We humans are too weak. We are weak creatures. We hold too many prejudices, even when we try not to. The dogs don't come with our complications. They don't ask anything but love in the end, and they work as hard as they can for you.''

   

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