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Reservist searches for American MIAs in North Korea

MCCHORD AIR FORCE BASE, Wash. -- Master Sgt. Chris Rumley is about to leave for an extended camping trip March 13. He's not taking much with him.

When you go camping in North Korea, you tend to pack light.

Sergeant Rumley will be part of a 10-member U.S. team heading into Unsan County, North Korea, to search for the remains of missing American servicemen killed during the Korean War. He is a reservist and the program manager for Air Force Reserve Command’s 446th Explosive Ordnance Disposal Flight.

"For me, I looked at this as being two, once-in-a-lifetime opportunities," Sergeant Rumley said. "The first is going into North Korea itself. The other is being on a team that actually looks for the remains of MIAs (missing in action). Bringing those people home for the families will make everything worthwhile."

According to Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command, more than 78,000 Americans are still missing in action from World War II, 1,800 from the Vietnam War, 120 from the Cold War and one American from the Gulf War.

From the Korean War, more than 8,100 Americans remain unaccounted for. Of those, almost 400 Americans are missing from the Unsan County region.

Sergeant Rumley's primary job will be to identify and clear, if needed, any ordnance the teams of Army Special Forces medics, anthropologists, Navy Seabees and vehicle maintainers come across. But he'll also be expected to help look for remains.

"What I've been told is we're basically doing a battlefield sweep of the area, which could also include a POW camp," Sergeant Rumley said. "They haven't told us yet what I'll be looking for as far as EOD work, but I expect to find grenades and mines. I have studied different types of ordnance used during that war, and there are some nasty ones."

The nasty ones, according to Sergeant Rumley, include unexploded bazooka rounds that have fuses designed to detonate in a variety of ways. Just rolling them over could trigger an explosion, Sergeant Rumley said.

"Those things are what, 50-60 years old now?" he said. "Who knows what they could do."

Even though McChord has nearly every tool in the inventory for EOD, Sergeant Rumley won't be taking any of his military tools or uniforms with him into North Korea. He'll get whatever he needs from JPAC at Hickam AFB, Hawaii.

"Everything we take with us will be civilian, from the backpacks and clothes to the tools and equipment," Sergeant Rumley said. "The EOD equipment is basically the same as we have here (at McChord). It's just not (olive-drab)-green. But we're not really taking that much. We have to be pretty mobile, so I imagine we'll take a magnetometer and some pin markers; and I expect to use small garden tools also."

The search team will live under primitive conditions. The only food the members of the team will have is the food they carry in with them.

The team will stay in tents near possible recovery sites. Along with the 10 Americans, Sergeant Rumley said nearly 100 North Koreans will be hired to take care of a lot of the manual labor.

Negotiations in Bangkok, Thailand, in November, led by the Department of Defense Prisoner of War/Missing Personnel Office, set five joint-field activities in the North Korea for 2005. Additionally, the year’s activity will include one pre-investigative period and one period of joint advance work.

Sergeant Rumley leaves March 13 for training at Hickam AFB, Hawaii, and should head into North Korea in mid-April. If all goes as scheduled, he should return to McChord in early June.

"I'm excited and apprehensive about being a military member and going into North Korea," he said. "My wife (Master Sgt. Stephanie Rumley, 446th Mission Support Group) is very supportive of me going. I'll be alright once I get going. But walking in and out of the demilitarized zone is going be something else -- especially if we're able to bring some missing servicemembers home."