COLUMBIA FALLS – As Americans, we believe that no matter what happens, every man and woman we send overseas will be brought home.
Tragically, that’s not always the case.
According to the Department of Defense, there are more than 83,000 American service personnel still missing in action around the globe. The vast majority of them, about 73,000, are from World War II; 7,800 soldiers are still missing from the Korean War; 1,600 from the Vietnam War and about 130 from the Cold War and Iraq.
Even if these thousands of soldiers are missing, they are not forgotten. Every year, the Joint POW/MIW Accounting Command in Hawaii identifies dozens of missing Americans in an attempt to bring them home. Helping in that effort for more than four decades was Rick Huston, a Columbia Falls native, who recently retired and moved home to the Flathead Valley.
“Our mission was to go to Vietnam and search for the missing,” Huston said. “A lot of people don’t understand the extent that the U.S. military goes to bringing its own home.”
Huston was drafted in 1968 and served overseas in 1971 and 1972. During his time in Vietnam he was assigned to a military search and recovery team.
Because of his experience, Huston moved to Hawaii in 1976 to join the Army Central Identification Laboratory, which later became the Joint POW/MIW Accounting Command. Huston started as a recovery specialist but slowly moved up the ladder in the 1980s, eventually becoming a case analyst and recovery leader.
When the military receives information about missing soldiers or an old crash site, an investigation team of three to six people are sent to track down more information, follow leads and attempt to pinpoint the exact location. If an old crash scene is found, a recovery team will go to the site and start digging for answers.
Crash sites are frequently drawn into grids as teams dig for evidence. Evidence recovered is bagged and sent to an anthropologist. Remains are often identified back at the lab in Hawaii.
Working in foreign countries is often complicated for the investigation and recovery teams. Huston said before any mission gets off the ground, the U.S. military spends countless hours negotiating terms for the recoveries.
Huston said he and his American colleagues built strong relationships with their Vietnamese counterparts. He said going to Vietnam after the war provided some healing and he discovered that the people with whom he once fought against were not that different from him. He recalled one Vietnamese official who had a bullet hole in his ear. Depending on the story he was telling, the old soldier would say the hole was from an American, French or Japanese bullet.
“There was a respect that grew between us and the North Vietnamese and over time friendships even grew from that,” he said.
In 1992, Huston retired from the military and began to work for the laboratory as civilian, eventually being promoted to deputy operations officer. In that role, Huston helped organize more missions overseas, including numerous trips to Vietnam and other Southeast Asian nations. He even took two trips to North Korea in the mid-2000s (a country he said surprisingly looked a lot like Montana).
Huston said missions were often filled with danger (encountering unexploded bombs in rugged territory was common), but the teams he helped lead were always willing and ready to do a job they all deeply cared about.
“These missions were a team effort and the people on them understood the danger and yet they always dove in at full steam,” he said.
Not every mission resulted in a recovery, Huston said, but that did not mean it was a waste of time.
“When you saw teams come off of the planes you could tell on their faces whether or not they had been able to find remains,” he said. “But I always told the teams that every mission is successful because even if you didn’t find remains, you helped answer questions.”
In 2013, Huston retired and last year he and his wife moved home to Columbia Falls. After four decades in Hawaii and overseas, he’s happy to be back, but that he’ll never forget his experiences bringing America’s soldiers home.
“It was incredibly fulfilling,” he said. “Not only did I get to serve my country in uniform, but I was able to help bring our soldiers home.”