When wars end, the troops return home and the dust of battle settles. Left in their wake are the countless fallen: soldiers and civilians, friends and enemies, side by side. Many are buried where they fell, unmarked and unknown, their stories lost in the tangled complexity of warfare.
To date, more than 82,000 Americans remain missing in action from WWII, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the Cold War, and the Gulf War, according to the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency.
Tristan Krause, a 2014 graduate of Phillips High School, is one of a handful of Wisconsinites working to bring those fallen service members home.
In 2016, the University of Wisconsin became the first outside organization to partner with DPAA — opening the doorway for a series of strategic partnerships with other research organizations who can aid in the work to find and recover the remains of American service members who were reported missing.
The UW MIA Recovery and Identification Project — which is a collaboration of researchers, students, and citizen volunteers — has so far been involved in the recovery or identification of three soldiers who fought in the European theater during WWII.
Krause initially became involved in the project during his senior year at UW-Madison when he took a course for his history undergraduate degree that focused on researching the historical records pertaining to soldiers who are reported missing in action.
“You feel you get to know the person,” said Krause. “You know everything from their blood type to their dental records to their last letter home. It is very powerful when you know they never got to go home.”
Research teams look for missing aircrew reports, eyewitness accounts, serial numbers on aircraft parts, casualty lists, dental records, letters home — anything that could help paint a picture of the missing soldier.
The hardest piece of historical evidence for Krause comes when reading the letters written by surviving family members to the Department of Defense, requesting information on their missing relatives.
“This is why I'm doing this. It's academically interesting, but at the heart of it, you're bringing closure to families,” he said. “The basic premise of this is that when we send someone to fight our nation's wars, there is an implicit understanding that if you make the ultimate sacrifice, we will bring you home. That's why we're doing this.”
During the summer of 2018, Krause traveled to northern France as a volunteer with the UW MIA Recovery Project, and assisted in the excavation of the crash site of a WWII bomber plane. It was believed that the crash had taken the life of 2nd Lieutenant Walter "Buster" Stone, who had been reported as missing since Oct. 22, 1943.
A crew of researchers and students spent weeks shifting earth, painstakingly sifting through soil for any clues that might indicate they were nearing their discovery — bone fragments, teeth, scraps of clothing, wedding rings, religious items, dog tags, anything that may provide insight.
After nearly a month of searching, the team located human remains.
It was an emotional moment for the UW team.
“It's not just closing a case … you are at an individual's gravesite,” said Charles Konsitzke, the team leader on the project. “When you find the remains, it's an emotional experience. You know you are going to be able to bring closure to a family.”
Just this spring, the DPAA identified those remains as belonging to Lieutenant Stone. His remains were returned to his hometown in Andalusia, Alabama, where he was finally laid to rest near his mother.
While Konsitzke said he is pleased with the work accomplished by the UW project, there is still work to be done to improve the process.
“There's still a lot more that could be done,” said Konsitzke. “One of our goals is to create a track record of excellence in MIA recovery and identification so that we can be not just a service provider, but also an educator in enhancing the process. There are still a lot of inefficiencies in the DPAA. There's a lot of red tape … and time lost in the current work process.”
The UW project is able to perform recoveries at a far more affordable rate than DPAA, as most of their team volunteer their efforts, and Konsitzke said the university would be capable of identifying biological remains within a matter of weeks — compared to the six to 15 months it takes the DPAA.
While the experience in France fueled Krause with an enthusiasm for the UW project work, he became convinced the team could do even better with an outside source of funding.
As an intern in the Wisconsin legislature working for Representative Christine Sinicki (D-Milwaukee) and Representative Beth Meyers (D-Bayfield), Krause brought the project to their attention.
With the support of Meyers and Sinicki, Krause began to work on creating a bill that would offer state funding to the MIA recovery and identification project — allowing the team to select the cases they work on, focusing solely on Wisconsin soldiers, and sharing their academic research publically. It would also allow the UW team to identify biological remains, vastly speeding up the process.
In Wisconsin alone, there are upwards of 1,500 service members who never returned home — whose families have received nothing more than a brief letter notifying them that their loved one is missing, presumed dead.
“This is a true statewide problem,” said Krause, highlighting that from the little Northwoods town of Phillips alone, there are three people who are still missing in action. “The unfortunate thing is that these families probably have a letter sent from the DOD that says 'We're sorry to inform you that your son is missing in action,' and that's probably the last thing they heard.”
Krause, who is currently employed as a member of staff for Assembly District 73 Representative Nick Milroy, said the proposed funding would allow for between one and three physical recoveries per year, identification of remains, and their return to their families for burial.
In cases where physical remains cannot be located — for example, in the case of airplane crashes over the ocean — the research team could provide families with historical updates about what has been discovered through the search process, painting a picture of what their missing family member experienced in their last days.
“We can break it down … this is what happened to your relative, and that can give a lot of closure to people,” said Krause.
The bill, which is scheduled for release on Sept. 5, has received bi-partisan support and has been authored by Representative Ken Skowronski (R-Franklin), Sinicki, Senator Roger Roth (R-Appleton), Senator Dale Kooyenga (R-Brookfield), Senator Mark Miller (D-Monona), and Senator Fred Risser (D-Madison).
If received, the funding from the state of Wisconsin would allow the MIA Recovery team to operate autonomously, in cooperation but not contracted with the DPAA.
The UW team plans to continue to work on contracted cases for DPAA alongside the work on lost Wisconsin service men and women.
Krause has found his passion in this work, and says he aims to make it his career.
“Recovering the service members is obviously the ultimate goal, but historically, there are some interesting questions to be answered as well,” he said. “I think there is certainly room here to make a career and have a lasting impact. I would love to keep doing this work for the rest of my career.”