Ed Sperry enlisted in the Army in November 1967. He volunteered three different times for tours in Vietnam.

"I was sure I was going to Vietnam. But every time I came down on orders for Vietnam, the orders were immediately canceled and the Army sent me to another school," Sperry said.It wasn't until this November, when he volunteered for the fourth time, that the military took him up on the offer.

Sperry returned to his Sugarhouse home Tuesday after spending 17 days in Vietnam looking for the remains of American soldiers who have been missing since the Vietnam War.

The search was organized in May by the U.S., Vietnamese and Laotian governments and was focused along the Ho Chi Minh Trail, the major supply route for North Vietnam's campaign against the United States.

Hundreds of American pilots were downed over the trail. The search, called Joint Task Force Full Accounting, focused on 62 "discrepancy cases" where the crew was last known alive and in imminent danger of being captured.

At the end of the search, Sperry is proud of the fact the 10-member team he was with was able to locate the remains of one soldier at the site of a helicopter crash along the trail.

Sperry is a master sergeant with the Utah Army National Guard's 19th Special Forces Group, where he is an operations and intelligence sergeant and a medic.

Sperry functioned as a medic for his team and for villagers living in areas where the search teams were working, in Vietnam along the border with Laos.

"At the same time we were in Vietnam, another team was in Laos," he said. "We got together three times during the mission - compared notes and had the Lao team interview Vietnamese witnesses and Vietnamese team interviewing Lao witnesses to pinpoint areas where soldiers are."

Sperry's Vietnamese counterparts "did anything and everything that they could to make this a real effort. They want America back as a trading partner and this is one of the things that is standing in the way. They just bent over backward to make sure that the skids were greased tremendously for us."

In some cases, the search teams had map-grid coordinates where people had known a soldier was either lost or dead but no one had been able to recover the bodies. "In those cases we were able to hike into those areas and do anywhere from a 400- to a 1,000-meter grid search."

In other cases, Sperry said, where less was known about the location of a downed aircraft, a team went ahead of the one Sperry was assigned to and looked for witnesses who may have had knowledge of a crash site. "They would arrange to have the witness meet with us and narrow our searches down a little bit," he said. "People are coming forward - villagers who know we have teams in there looking for crash sites and sites of engagement."The Vietnamese are tremendous at being able to use anything and everything. Metal aircraft skins had been fashioned into spoons.

Ed Sperry

"We were able to pinpoint 13 sites and actually discovered wreckage or artifacts at five of the sites."

One was the wreckage of an F-104 fighter. The others were sites of helicopters that had been shot down.

"There was still wreckage, but not a great deal. The Vietnamese are tremendous at being able to use anything and everything. Metal aircraft skins had been fashioned into spoons, for example.

"If they had found the wreckage first, there was usually very little left, except for maybe a large chunk of an engine or something. We even found pieces with jungle vines tied into ropes attached."

An ordnance technician on the team inspected wreckage parts before any were moved because some were found to be booby trapped, including a helmet that had a hand grenade underneath it.

Pictures Sperry took in villages showed bomb casings used as house foundations and gateposts. Scrap piles filled with military hardware showed ongoing salvage operations.

The search team included an archaeologist and a morgue technician. The team leader was a Vietnam veteran who knew the area well.

Military officials say repeatedly they never expect a complete reckoning of the 2,248 Americans still unaccounted for in Southeast Asia because so much time has passed and because many airmen crashed over water or in mountains.

But Sperry believes the searching should continue. "I think that there are a number of sites that still need to be investigated and some time that needs to be spent and some additional operations over there."

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And now that this experience is behind him, Sperry is happy Uncle Sam never got around to sending him to Vietnam during the war. "Those guys suffered in an environment that is excruciatingly hot. And when it's not hot it's so muddy and so wet that we adopted slogans like `Ten steps forward, five steps backward,' and `This is the year to ski Vietnam.' The mud is deep and slippery and treacherous."

"On top of that, they were in a real nasty battle situation. And yet it's beautiful country. It's absolutely beautiful."

Military forensics experts in Hawaii will examine and try to identify the remains Sperry's team found. Sperry hopes an American family, somewhere, will be able to put the uncertainty of more than 20 years behind it. He also hopes to find out the soldier's identity so he can attach a name to his work.

"I've done a lot of things in my time in the military. This absolutely was one of the most exciting and satisfying things I have done."

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