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For many veterans of the armed forces, transitioning back to civilian life can be a challenge. But one organization is taking an unusual approach to helping ex-service personnel find their feet by taking part 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 its inception in 2016. The nonprofit, it says, helps veterans “find their future while exploring their past.”
Originally from Texas, Humphreys served in the Iraq War and in Afghanistan during 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.
“My first drilling experience was what I want to give to every AVAR participant. I felt part of a team again, which I had been missing,” he said in an interview with CNN.
“I worked outside with my hands and connected with people from the distant past through objects left behind. I felt that what I was doing mattered; we were uncovering knowledge that is valuable to our entire species.
“It’s that last part, that pursuit of knowledge, that really hooked me and convinced me to make this a career.”
AVAR’s projects range from finding the remains of lost service members in Europe during World War II to exploring what were once battlefields during the American Revolutionary War.
In addition to chairing AVAR, Humphreys is a researcher at the University of York in England, where he is studying the intersection of archeology and mental health.
While this may seem like an unusual combination, Humphreys believes archeology offers the perfect opportunity for those struggling with the transition to civilian life. “It’s vital for today’s service members to know that if they die in foreign wars, people will find them and bring them home,” he told CNN.
“What we’re doing is giving veterans meaning.”
Supporting the mental health of veterans could not be more important. According to a 2021 report from the US Department of Veterans Affairs, 6,261 veterans took their own lives in 2019, accounting for 13.7% of all suicides among American adults. That equates to approximately 17 veteran suicides that year.
AVAR has a unique partnership with the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA) called Operation Keeping Faith. DPAA is an agency of the Department of Defense, and its missions with AVAR are funded through cooperative agreements with the department.
More than 70,000 World War II service members are still listed as missing in action (MIA), according to AVAR.
In the summer of 2021, Humphreys and a group of volunteers spent a few weeks on a farm in England searching for the remains of three World War II planes, 77 years after they disappeared. The project was carried out in collaboration with DPAA.
Also last year, two excavations in Sicily sought the account of a fighter pilot who disappeared working during the Allied invasion of the Italian island in 1943.
Because the results of the excavations cannot be disclosed due to the confidentiality of the DPAA’s work, Humphreys says the fruitful fieldwork gives ex-servicemen a renewed sense of accomplishment.
“We are a demographic defined by our will and desire to serve others,” he said. “We see veterans who don’t know what to do because they don’t understand the civilian culture and feel alone and lost. 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 in a variety of areas in the U.S. and abroad, but we specialize in American battlefields and conflict zones from the French and Indian War to World War II,” said Humphreys, whose organization provides participants with a wide range of options. he added that he wants them. range of experience and training.
“Veterans bring a unique emotional understanding to these sites, so this is another way we allow our veterans to shine: No one knows the battlefields like a veteran.”
Research conducted by AVAR shows that participants return with increased self-esteem and mental well-being. Because most of the organization’s work is done outside, the environment has a positive effect on mental health, and the constant 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 these programs in “military well-being”.
Researchers from the King’s Center for Military Health Research at King’s College London found “sustained improvements in psychological well-being evident in groups of veteran military personnel who participated in an archeology-based program.”
Although the study concluded that further research is needed, the researchers – who are not involved with AVAR – added: “Improvements in psychological well-being were evident after the archaeological dig and were significantly improved several months later.”
In the AVAR program, most of the participants are veterans with service-connected physical disabilities and mental health issues, but the focus is on what they can do, Humphreys said.
“Our focus is on what our veterans are doing now and what they will be doing as they move forward,” he added.
Ben Powers served as a staff member in Iraq in 2006, followed by two tours of duty in Afghanistan. “During my tour in Iraq I served with my closest friend in the Navy, Major Dave Taylor,” Humphreys told CNN in an email.
“Dave and I have been friends since 1994, when we served together at Fort Bragg Airfield. I last saw Dave in September 2006 at FOB Falcon Iraq. He was KIA (killed in action) the following month.
“Losing Dave had a big impact on my perspective and I withdrew from others for a long time. When I left the Army in 2016, that withdrawal deepened because I was no longer a soldier.”
Last September, Powers joined an AVAR delegation for a metal detector survey in Saratoga, New York, the scene of a decisive American victory in the Revolutionary War.
Despite her lack of prior experience, Powers found the project transformative, with “excellent” training.
“All I knew about archeology was modern popular culture, an Indiana Jones kind of thing,” he told CNN in a video call.
“Within an hour I felt like I had a dozen siblings.
“As veterans we already know how to show up on time and we know what it means to work hard. We know what it means to go deep, and since we formed bonds very quickly we were able to help each other apply those skills to achieve the goal.’
Despite his success in civilian work as a defense contractor, Powers admits there are challenges. “Most vets do great in their civilian careers, but it’s very rare to find an individual who finds the same level of commitment and fulfillment in what they’re doing,” he said.
“Preserving the memories of the people who served in Saratoga and sharing that information with the current generation of veterans, that struck me as a higher purpose and something I could get behind.”
While at Saratoga, Powers befriended Minnesotan Kyle O’Connor, who had spent nearly 15 years in the Army.
“I did one tour in Operation Iraqi Freedom 2004/2005,” O’Connor told CNN via Humphreys in an email. “The best friend I ever had went on another tour after requalifying in the infantry. He felt that he had not done enough on his first tour.
“When he got home he was in a very serious condition, and he committed suicide shortly after returning home.”
O’Connor was devastated. Despite working hard to manage his condition, he eventually retired due to medical reasons in October 2016.
“I felt like I was going to lose my identity, I was going to lose my best friend and I was going to lose what I hoped would be a 30-year career and being a part of something that was really important,” she said.
Creating a new identity was a “total struggle,” he told CNN in a video call. That was until Humphreys attended a conference on AVAR.
“I filled out the paper while he was talking,” she said.
Saratoga led O’Connor to “fall in love with the program” and gave her “a new purpose to bring awareness to the past,” she said.
He was so excited back home that he and his wife bought metal detectors to pursue this new found passion.
Meanwhile, earlier this year he embarked on another AVAR project in Texas, where the team was searching for the exact location of the Battle of Medina between Spain and Mexican revolutionaries during the Mexican War of Independence. A group of volunteers will return to this project in October.
“I would have been in the military for 30 years if I could have,” O’Connor said. “This is the next best thing, if not the best.”
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