More than two dozen Mercer Bears participated in a history-making moment this summer in South Korea. The fifth annual Mercer On Mission (MOM) trip to the country included a new component, as participants assisted the Korean Army in its excavation project to find the remains of soldiers who fought during the Korean War.
Led by engineering faculty Dr. Sinjae Hyun and Dr. Scott Schultz, MOM South Korea participants taught English and robotics to North Korean refugee children at the Drim School and worked on 3D modeling and printing projects for the blind.
Dr. Hyun, professor of biomedical engineering, said he started talking with a South Korean government liaison about Mercer joining in the excavation project two years ago, and everything came together for it to happen during the 2019 trip.
For about 10 years, the Korean Army has been excavating mountaintops where major battles occurred during the Korean War and uncovering the remains of soldiers and their belongings.
The Korean War resulted in nearly 3 million casualties. Many soldiers remain unaccounted for nearly 70 years later, including 130,000 Korean soldiers and 78,000 American soldiers, according to Korean news reports and the U.S. Department of Defense’s POW/MIA Accounting Agency.
Much of the work for the excavation project is being done in the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), a buffer zone between North and South Korea. When remains are spotted, experts come in with their tools and take over. Remains are placed in a box, a memorial service is held on site, and then the remains are sent off for DNA testing, Dr. Schultz and Dr. Hyun said.
About 25 Mercer students and 25 Drim School students hiked for around two hours to get the excavation site – approximately 30 miles south of the DMA near the city of Hongcheon, South Korea – and used shovels to dig into the mountainside.
With the students there, history was made as it was the first time citizens from the four main countries involved in the Korean War worked together on the excavation project. Korean television crews documented this landmark moment and interviewed a few of the MOM participants.
“It was a very meaningful trip. There were Americans, South Koreans, North Koreans and Chinese, because many of our students at Drim School have Chinese citizenship. All four major players of the war were there,” Dr. Hyun said.
Remains from three different individuals were found while the students were on site, which was very emotional, said Dr. Schultz, senior associate dean and professor of industrial engineering. They participated in a memorial service during which white chrysanthemums were placed on the boxes containing the remains.
“I feel very honored to be a part of something so big,” said Skylar Christianson, a senior biomedical engineering major whose grandfather served in the Korean War. “They sent the remains off at the end, and to get to know that they were going home was very special.”
The students also talked with some of the soldiers and ate MREs (Meals Ready to Eat) for lunch alongside them, said Sarah Spalding, a sophomore majoring in biomedical engineering.
“For me, the most impactful thing wasn’t even the digging,” said Spalding. “It was talking to the South Korean soldiers and getting to know what it meant to them that we were there.”
Dr. Schultz brought black-and-white battlefield photos that his father-in-law took while serving in the Korean War. He said it was interesting to see how the landscape had changed since the 1950s and to be immersed in the setting of stories his father-in-law had told him.
Dr. Hyun has a connection with the Korean War Veterans Chapter in Atlanta, and he was able to share details of his experience with the veterans. He plans for the excavation project to be a part of the MOM South Korea trip in 2020 and the foreseeable future.