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How digging up the past is helping US military veterans build a future

By Lianne Kolirin, CNN

For many armed forces veterans, the return to civilian life can be a challenge. But one organization is taking an unusual approach to helping ex-service personnel find their feet — involving them in archaeological projects to bring home the remains of fallen soldiers.

Stephen Humphreys, a 40-year-old former US Air Force captain, has led American Veterans Archaeological Recovery (AVAR) since founding it in 2016. The nonprofit organization, he says, helps veterans “find their future while exploring the past.”

Originally from Texas, Humphreys served in the Iraq War, and in the skies above Afghanistan for Operation Enduring Freedom. He left the military in 2010 and planned to attend a seminary and serve as a military chaplain. But a life-changing trip to join an excavation in Israel inspired him to retrain as an archaeologist instead.

“My first dig experience was what I want to give every AVAR participant. I got to feel like part of a team again, which I had been missing,” he said in an interview with CNN.

“I got to work outside with my hands and connect to people from the distant past through the objects they left behind. I got to feel like what I was doing mattered; we were uncovering knowledge that is of value to our entire species.

“It’s that last part, that hunt for knowledge, that really hooked me and convinced me to turn this into a career.”

AVAR’s projects range from finding the remains of service members lost in Europe during World War II to scouring what were once battlefields in the American Revolutionary War.

Beside heading up AVAR, Humphreys is a research fellow at the University of York in England, where he is exploring the intersection of archaeology and mental health.

While this may seem an unusual combination, Humphreys believes archaeology offers the perfect opportunity to those struggling with the transition to civilian life. “It’s invaluable to current service members to know that if they’re killed in wars overseas, people are going to find them and bring them home,” he told CNN.

“What we’re doing really gives veterans a sense of purpose.”

Supporting veterans’ mental health could not be more important. According to a 2021 report from the US Department of Veteran Affairs, 6,261 veterans took their own lives in 2019, accounting for 13.7% of suicides among American adults. This equates to roughly 17 veteran suicides a day in that year.

AVAR has a unique partnership with the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA) called Operation Keeping Faith. The DPAA is an agency within the Department of Defense, and its partner missions with AVAR are funded via cooperative agreements with the department.

Veterans can feel lost in civilian life

More than 70,000 World War II service members are still classified as missing in action (MIA), according to AVAR.

During the summer of 2021, Humphreys and a team of volunteers spent weeks on an English farm searching for the remains of three World War II airmen, 77 years after they disappeared. The project was run in partnership with the DPAA.

Also last year, two digs in Sicily sought to account for a fighter pilot missing in action during the Allied invasion of the Italian island in 1943.

While the confidential nature of the DPAA’s work means the results of the digs cannot be publicized, Humphreys says fruitful fieldwork provides former military men and women with a renewed sense of achievement.

“We are a demographic defined by our willingness and desire to serve others,” he said. “We see veterans who don’t know what to do once they get out because they feel lonely and lost because they don’t understand civilian culture. They are looking to contribute and be part of a mission.”

Humphreys was recently in Texas on AVAR’s 15th project to date — four of which have been DPAA missions.

“AVAR has worked a wide variety of sites in the US and abroad, but we specialize in American battlefields and conflict sites from the French and Indian War up to World War II,” Humphreys said, adding that his organization seeks to give participants a broad range of experience and training.

“Veterans bring a unique emotional understanding to these sites, so this is another way we give our veterans an opportunity to shine: no one knows battlefields like a veteran.”

AVAR’s own research shows that participants return with greater self-esteem and mental wellbeing. With most of the organization’s work conducted outdoors, the environment has a positive impact on mental health, while the continuous concentration required helps veterans deal with anxiety and intrusive thoughts, Humphreys said.

This is reflected in a study published earlier this year in the Journal of Conflict Archaeology, which sought to measure the value of such programs on “military wellbeing.”

The researchers from King’s College London’s King’s Centre for Military Health Research found “sustained improvements in psychological wellbeing that were evident in groups of still serving and veteran military personnel who participated in an archaeology-based program.”

Although the study concluded that more research is required, the researchers — who are not involved with AVAR — added: “The improvements in psychological wellbeing were evident after the archaeological dig and remained significantly improved several months later.”

In the AVAR program, most of the participants are veterans with service-related physical disabilities and mental health problems, but the spotlight is on what they can do rather than what they can’t, Humphreys said.

“Our focus is on what our veterans are doing now and what they will do as they move forward,” he added.

‘A higher goal’

Ben Powers served as a staff officer in Iraq in 2006, followed by two tours of Afghanistan. “During my Iraq tour I served with my closest friend in the Army, Maj. Dave Taylor,” he told CNN via Humphreys in an email.

“Dave and I had been friends since 1994, when we served together in the airborne at Fort Bragg. I last saw Dave in September 2006 at FOB Falcon Iraq. He was KIA (killed in action) the next month.

“Losing Dave had a major impact on my outlook and I withdrew from others for a long time. When I left the Army in 2016 this withdrawal deepened as I was no longer pursuing my vocation as a soldier.”

In September last year, Powers joined an AVAR delegation for a metal detector survey in Saratoga, New York, the scene of a decisive American victory of the Revolutionary War.

Despite having no previous experience, Powers found the project, which involved “excellent” training, transformative.

“What I knew about archaeology was no more than modern popular culture, Indiana Jones kind of stuff,” he told CNN in a video call.

“I felt like I had a dozen brothers and sisters within an hour.

“As veterans we already know how to show up on time and we know what it means to work hard. We know what it’s like to dig in, and because we formed bonds very quickly we were able to support each other while applying those skills to meet the objective.”

Though successful in his civilian job working for a defense contractor, Powers recognizes there are challenges. “Most vets do great in their civilian careers, but it’s a very rare person who finds the same level of commitment and fulfillment for what they are doing,” he said.

“To preserve the memories of the people who served at Saratoga and to share that information with the current generation of veterans — that spoke to me as a higher goal and something I could get behind.”

While in Saratoga, Powers became friends with Minnesota-based Kyle O’Connor, who spent almost 15 years in the army.

“I served one tour during Operation Iraqi Freedom 2004/2005,” O’Connor told CNN in an email via Humphreys. “The best friend I ever had went on to do another tour after reclassing to infantry. He felt like he didn’t do enough his first tour.

“When he got home he was in very rough shape, and he died by suicide shortly after coming home.”

O’Connor was devastated. Though he worked hard to manage his situation, he eventually retired on medical grounds in October 2016.

“I felt as if I lost my identity, I had lost my best friend and I had lost what I hoped would be a 30-year career and to be a part of something that truly mattered,” he said.

Forging a new identity was a “complete struggle,” he told CNN on a video call. That was until he attended one of Humphreys’ briefings about AVAR.

“I filled out the paperwork as he was speaking,” he said.

Saratoga led O’Connor to “fall in love with the program” and endowed him with a “new sense of purpose in uncovering the past,” he said.

So inspired was he that back home he and his wife bought metal detectors to pursue this newfound passion.

Meanwhile, earlier this year he embarked on another AVAR project in Texas, where the team were searching for the exact location of the Battle of Medina between Spain and Mexican revolutionaries in the Mexican War of Independence. A group of volunteers will return to that project in October.

“I would have stayed in the military for 30 years if I could have,” said O’Connor. “This is the next best thing, if not the best thing.”

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