Eileen A. Bjorkman is a former flight test engineer with more than thirty-five years of experience. She is the author of The Propeller under the Bed: A Personal History of Homebuilt Aircraft and has published articles in the Smithsonian’s Air & Space Magazine among many other publications.
Leaving No One Behind: The U.S. Military’s Unique Commitment
I hadn’t planned to write a book about the U.S. military’s commitment (some might say obsession) with leaving no one behind on the battlefield or long after war’s end. Unforgotten in the Gulf of Tonkin: A Story of the U.S. Military’s Commitment to Leave No One Behind (Potomac Books, 2020) instead started out as a shorter piece about the ejection and dramatic rescue of a young navy pilot in 1965 during the Vietnam War.
I discovered Willie Sharp’s story while viewing YouTube videos one evening in 2015 as I researched an article about the navy’s F-8 fighter aircraft. One video, titled “The Ejection of Lieutenant William Sharp,” had a series of photographs that depicted his story, overlaid with an edited recording of actual radio transmissions made during the ejection and rescue.
I didn’t have room in my F-8 piece for Willie’s story, but I thought it would make a good second article. However, as I interviewed Willie and did additional background research, I discovered that the aircrews and aircraft involved in his rescue had not found him because of meticulous planning and foresight on the part of U.S. military leadership. Instead, lower-ranking officers who simply wanted to “leave no one behind” spent several years painstakingly piecing together the capabilities needed.
My planned 3,000-word article quickly grew to 8,000 words. Even at that length I felt I couldn’t do justice to Willie’s story, so I explored the idea of using his incident to drive a larger narrative on the history of combat search and rescue (CSAR), from World War I to the present. The outline my agent sold to Potomac Books included the history of CSAR through the beginning of the Vietnam War, Willie’s rescue, and then a chapter on CSAR today, including the narrative of a more recent rescue.
I largely maintained my proposal’s outline for the first two-thirds of the book. But as I did even more research, I discovered yet another story that gave new meaning to the words “leave no one behind,” a story that involved not just a commitment to battlefield rescues but the commitment to making warriors whole again after they return from war, whether they have been scarred by physical or psychological wounds. A third commitment is the continuing search for the more than 80,000 U.S. personnel still missing from World War II, Korea, Vietnam, and other conflicts. As a retired air force officer, I knew of these commitments, but it wasn’t obvious to me at first that my book was really about all of them, not just CSAR.
I never wrote the chapter on modern CSAR capabilities. My research instead turned to understanding and describing the latter two commitments, leading me down paths that included post-traumatic stress (PTS), the POW/MIA movement born from Vietnam, and even the treatment of fallen warriors in the Iliad and the Odyssey.
The U.S. commitment to making our returning warriors whole again is currently a bit uneven. Like many countries, the U.S. generally does a good job of taking care of those who suffer from physical wounds. But my research also convinced me that until our society takes responsibility for what some professionals now refer to as “moral injuries,” many U.S. veterans will continue to suffer from PTS.
But the U.S. commitment to finding our lost warriors long after a war ends is unparalleled. Most modern militaries have some sort of search and rescue capability and many societies place a high value on recovering remains in the immediate aftermath of a battle. But the U.S. is the only country that spends significant resources to search for our missing warriors many decades after a conflict ends. The mission of the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA) includes “determining the fate of the missing and where possible, recovering them alive or recovering and identifying the remains of the dead.” The DPAA’s six hundred employees view their work as a “sacred obligation, if not moral imperative.” Although DPAA believes that fewer than half of the 83,000 missing can be recovered, these dedicated personnel work tirelessly to return the remains of about 200 of the missing to their families each year.
Given the chaos of combat and the limits of technology, we may never completely fulfill the commitment to “leave no one behind.” However, the commitment is one the U.S. should always be willing to make. Many families find closure when a loved one has been accounted for. The commitment also increases confidence in our warriors as they go into battle, knowing their comrades will do everything they can to bring them back if they get into trouble, even if that means putting others in harm’s way or continuing to search for decades to come.
Watch the book trailer here: