His mission: giving closure
By Steve Young
Sioux Falls (S.D.) Argus Leader
By Steve Young
Sgt. Kili Bald Eagle remembers the wind. It rustled through the leaves and rattled the nearby branches just as he and his group completed their search for the remains of missing American soldiers in a steep ravine west of Da Nang, Vietnam.
"It was kind of like a sign from the spirits, or from nature itself, that there was a sense of completion," he says. "I know it was felt by the entire team."
The moment was as spiritual as it was satisfying for this 31-year-old Lakota from the Cheyenne River Reservation. For almost two years now, he has traveled to Laos, Vietnam and Austria with recovery teams from the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command based at Hickam Air Force Base on O'ahu.
Their mission is to search for the remains of fallen American service members.
It is honorable, important work for this akitica, which means "warrior" in Lakota.
"When you see the pictures of the families that have closure in their lives, and you know you're part of that ... it's very rewarding," Bald Eagle says. "To know that if I was to fall in combat, someone just like myself would recover me and take as much pride as I would when I do this. ... It's just really a respect for those who have gone before you."
Bald Eagle understands that sense of history well. His father, Dave Bald Eagle, parachuted behind enemy lines at Normandy during World War II and served as a code talker during that conflict. His great-grandfather, Chief White Bull, was an ally of Sitting Bull and led an attack at Little Big Horn.
"I come from a long line of warriors who believe very much in service to my country," Kili Bald Eagle says. "There are not a lot of jobs on the reservation, so it was a career option for me. But I also wanted to follow in my father's footsteps."
Trained initially in the Army as a combat engineer, Bald Eagle now uses those skills to negotiate the most difficult terrain in an effort to find missing service members. He is on loan to JPAC from the 82nd Airborne Division out of Fort Bragg, N.C.
On seven trips to Laos, one to Vietnam and one to Austria, his engineering expertise has created bridges, built dams, arranged the ropes for team members to rappel down the side of cliffs, and otherwise provided access to hard-to-reach locales.
Bald Eagle also is involved in setting up screening areas to sift through the dirt for bone material, teeth and evidence of human remains.
"Bone material is ideal. A tooth is ideal," Bald Eagle says. "We also find a lot of life-support equipment ... pieces of a flight jacket, a helmet or a mask. Parachute material is really nice to find. And ID tags are a big thing."
On each mission, they bring with them a case file that tells them who they might be looking for and why they could be there. That includes details of battles and the recollections of other service members who were part of those battles.
The memories of locals help, too. They often are hired for their knowledge of the area and to work with the recovery team, Bald Eagle says.
"I learn a lot from the locals, and not just about the site we're working at," he says. "You learn about their culture, you learn how to deal with the animals you encounter."
Once while clearing an area, he cut down a tree that was hollow inside and discovered that he had sliced through two bamboo viper snakes. "Basically, you remain calm in a situation like that, and get the locals over there to deal with it," he says.
But Bald Eagle would just as soon let it slither away; among the Lakota, there is a brotherhood among all living things. And Josee Bald Eagle, 65, of Howes, S.D., says her son is very sensitive to that way of thinking.
"He'll be the one that goes down on his stomach to admire a flower. What soldier stops for a flower?" she said. "But he'll go down on his knees to look at something beautiful."
Her son has an instinctive side as well, Josee Bald Eagle says, one that allows him to know something is near when America's most technologically advanced gizmos don't see it.
"He feels where things are at," his mother says. "He'll tell them, 'You need to look on this site.' And they'll say, 'No, no, no, the coordinates we have say it's over here.' Inevitably, they'll find it where he told them in the first place."
Bald Eagle says he has a deep sense of respect for the work he does and a sense of accomplishment when they find remains.
It is a difficult job, one that takes him away for long stretches from his wife, Dezi, his 3-year-old son, Enoch, his 4-month-old daughter, Arianna, and a baby on the way.
And he seldom knows the identity of the remains they find. That's the work of the anthropologists at Hickam.
Still, Bald Eagle does experience a sense of closure, one that he hopes the families of those missing service members come to know as well.
"One of the things we like to say when we close every prayer is 'Mitakuye Oyasin,' (or) 'we are all related,' " he says. "All spirits are interlinked with each other in some way, shape or form.
"So when I see possible remains, I immediately get a sense of accomplishment. You know that spirit is finally going to be able to come home."