SAN DIEGO (KGTV) - After more than 50 years, the remains of an Air Force Airman lost during the Vietnam War are home, thanks in large part to researchers at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography.
Air Force Major Paul Avolese was lost on July 7, 1969, when the B-52 Bomber he was in collided with another over the South China Sea. Avolese was one of three Airmen on the plane unaccounted for after the crash.
This past September, Project Recover, a non-profit dedicated to finding missing Americans lost during wars, discovered the plane and Avolese's remains.
Working with the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, and the University of Delaware, Project Recover sent Underwater Automated Vehicles to the crash area, 20 miles off the coast of Vietnam.
The UAVs used side-sweeping SONAR and magnetometers to scan the ocean floor and discover the wreck. After that, a SCUBA diving team went down and brought back Avolese's remains.
"It really is a perfect marriage," says Lead Archaeologist Andrew Pietruzska. "DPAA had seen our capabilities from a technology standpoint, in other geographic areas around the world, and knew that this could be a force multiplier, a game-changer in the underwater MIA searching in Vietnam."
The Avolese family requested privacy after Major Avolese's remains were returned, so they didn't meet with the team from Project Recover or the media. But Pietruszka says he respects their choice.
"It's incredibly humbling," says Pietruszka. "It is such an honor to take our skillset and help these gold star families, to give back to families that have made the ultimate sacrifice for this country. If we can do any little part to help them out, you know we'll do it."
This was the first recovery of Vietnam War-era remains that Project Recovery has helped with. Previously, the group helped find and recover more than 50 missing aircraft from WWII and repatriated the remains of 14 Americans.
The DPAA estimates there are nearly 82,000 Americans still missing from conflicts dating back to WWII, including 1,584 from Vietnam.
For Major Avolese's recovery, Pietruszka says the Vietnamese government played a huge role in allowing access to the water. Vietnamese scientists even joined Pietruszka's team during the mission to learn about the technology.
"It's just great to go into a host nation like Vietnam, particularly a nation that we had a conflict with for many, many years, and to see how supportive they are of this mission," he says. "To see the sincerity and reverence that they had, as well, was touching."
Now, as Project Recover expands its mission to more recent conflicts, Pietruszka says they're dedicated to helping families find closure. He says any family looking for help to find an MIA loved one can contact Project Recover at their website.
"The mission is far from ending. We're excited to get back out."