HONOLULU -- It isn’t very often that a son or daughter gets to say, ‘My dad is a historical archeologist who helps return lost heroes to their families’, but Nino Peterson, Aliamanu Middle School, or AMS, student, gets to say just that and more.
The Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, or DPAA, hosted Nino and her fellow students during a visit to the headquarters building on Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Hawaii, Feb. 10.
The students were given presentations on biological profiling, isotope analysis and archeology, all with the intent of exploring possible career paths within forensic science.
DPAA’s Scientific Analysis directorate used the opportunity to educate local students on basic anthropology and recovery operations, as well as the importance of maximizing the number of missing personnel accounted for. One of the presenters was Nino’s dad, Dr. Alex Peterson, who gave a presentation on historical archeology and field operations.
“One of the coolest things we got to listen to was my dad’s presentation,” said Nino. “Not just because he’s my dad, but because it was pretty cool to hear what it’s like in the field. I know a bit more about what my dad does than I did previously. There’s a lot of people doing different things and using different tools to accomplish the mission at DPAA.”
Peterson works with the Indo-Pacific Directorate, the section of DPAA responsible for researching and conducting field activities in Southeast Asia and the neighboring Pacific islands. As a historical archeologist, he works closely with DPAA’s forensic scientists to properly research on-going cases and narrow the search area for future recovery sites.
“I’ve always loved archeology and sharing archeology stuff with Nino no matter where I’ve been working,” Peterson said. “Just to see her in the building was really cool, that their school decided to do a field trip. It was cool to show her a different type of archeology that wasn’t so much academic, like I used to work on, but that was used to do a good thing. I was excited for her to see all that stuff.”
While Peterson has always loved his work, his involvement with DPAA isn’t just professional, but personal.
“One of the reasons I really wanted to do this job is to one day find my great uncle and bury him next to his sister,” Peterson said. “My great uncle is one of our unrecovered losses; he’s missing in the Guadalcanal. I also was prior service. I was an army infantryman. So not leaving anyone behind and continuing to tell those stories for those people who were never recovered is very important to me. The mission itself is just fascinating.”
It's that fascination and personal investment that not only drives Peterson, but also motivates him to teach others about DPAA, encouraging any and all opportunities for education. Out of the more than 81,500 Americans missing, 75 percent of the losses are located in the Indo-Pacific, making Peterson’s regional directorate the largest of the two under DPAA.
The massive scope of this mission makes teamwork and collaboration across specializations essential. When it came to understanding the agency, Peterson emphasized this point especially.
“The biggest thing I wanted Nino to take away was how people can come together from a diverse research background to work towards a common goal,” Peterson said. “In the past, you’d have archeology just doing archeology, and history just doing history, but we have historians, archeologists, humanities, and sciences all together, and all these people with different skills collaborating towards one mission. When you mix all these skills together, you get a better picture of the situation, and you can accomplish objectives a lot better cause you get more perspectives and input.”
This opportunity not only provided a healthy avenue for education, but also allowed DPAA to engage with the local community. Next to the field trip at the agency building, DPAA also sent three representatives to give presentations at AMS, giving students multiple opportunities to learn and ask questions both inside and outside of the classroom.
“It was great having the kids come in because they all had great questions and were super interested,” Peterson said. “I think it’s a great idea what they’re doing with the schools. Rather than just being this four-letter agency, it helps connect and personalize it cause they see the actual people in the lab and they can ask them questions. It also gives them a chance to see how the technology works and shows them opportunities that they might be interested in the future. The public outreach is good for that because it turns a small group of researchers into a bigger community where everyone is contributing towards the mission.”
While the presentations focused on archaeology, science and field operations, all the presenters had one common message critical to their areas of expertise: the importance of providing the fullest possible accounting for missing personnel, both to their families and the nation they served.
“If there was someone you knew who went to war and never came back, you never see them again, that would be pretty sad,” Nino said. “The fact that they’re trying to find them is kind of cool. It’s important to the families. They get to make that difference.”
It’s that difference that keeps Dr. Peterson hard at work, and happy to perform tasks the agency requires.