US Veterans: How Unearthing the Past Helps Former Soldiers Build a Future

Editor’s note: If you or someone you know is struggling with suicidal thoughts or mental health issues, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988 (or 800-273-8255) to connect with a trained counselor, or visit the NSPL website.


For many Bundeswehr veterans, returning to civilian life can be challenging. But one organization is taking an unusual approach to helping former soldiers get back on their feet – by involving them in archaeological projects to bring home the remains of fallen soldiers.

Stephen Humphreys, a 40-year-old former US Air Force captain, has taken the lead Archaeological Recovery of American Veterans (AVAR) since inception in 2016. The nonprofit organization, he says, helps veterans “find their future as they explore the past.”

Originally from Texas, Humphreys served in the Iraq War and in the skies over Afghanistan for 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 a dig in Israel inspired him to retrain as an archaeologist instead.

“My first excavation experience was what I want to give to every AVAR participant. I felt like I was part of a team again that I missed,” he said in an interview with CNN.

“I had to work outside with my hands and connect with people from the distant past through the objects left behind. I got the feeling that what I was doing was important; we uncovered knowledge of value to our entire species.

“It’s that last part, that hunt for knowledge, that really grabbed me and convinced me to make a career out of it.”

AVAR’s projects range from searching for the remains of soldiers lost in Europe during World War II to searching former Revolutionary War battlefields.

In addition to leading AVAR, Humphreys is a research associate at University of York in England, where he explores the intersection between archeology and mental health.

While this may seem an unusual combination, Humphreys believes archeology offers the perfect opportunity for those struggling with the transition to civilian life. “It is invaluable for current military personnel to know that if they are killed in wars abroad, people will find them and bring them home,” he told CNN.

“What we’re doing really gives meaning to the veterans.”

Supporting veterans’ mental health couldn’t be more important. According to a 2021 United States Department of Veterans Affairs report, 6,261 veterans committed suicide in 2019, accounting for 13.7% of suicides among American adults. That equates to about 17 veteran suicides per day this year.

AVAR has a unique partnership with the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA) called Operation Keeping Faith. The DPAA is an agency within the Department of Defense and its partnered missions with AVAR are funded through collaborative agreements with the Department.

More than 70,000 World War II soldiers are still listed as missing (MIA). AVAR.

In the summer of 2021, Humphreys and a team of volunteers spent weeks on an English farm searching for the remains of three World War II airmen, 77 years after they went missing. The project was carried out in partnership with the DPAA.

Also last year, two digs in Sicily attempted to explain a fighter pilot who went missing in action during the Allied invasion of the Italian island in 1943.

While the confidential nature of the DPAA’s work means the results of the excavation cannot be made public, Humphreys says the fruitful field work is giving former military personnel a new sense of accomplishment.

“We are a demographic defined by our willingness and desire to serve others,” he said. “We see veterans who don’t know what to do when they come out because they feel lonely and lost because they don’t understand civilian culture. They want to contribute and be part of a mission.”

Humphreys recently served as AVAR’s 15th project in Texas, four of which were DPAA missions.

“AVAR has worked in a variety of locations both in the United States and abroad, but we specialize in American battlefields and conflict sites from the French and Indian Wars to World War II,” Humphreys said, adding that his organization seeks to educate participants wide range to offer scope of experience and training.

“Veterans bring a unique emotional understanding to these sites, so we’re giving our veterans a chance to shine in this way too: no one knows battlefields like a veteran.”

AVAR’s own research shows that participants return with greater self-esteem and psychological well-being. Because most of the organization’s work is conducted outdoors, the environment has a positive impact on mental health, while the sustained focus required helps veterans manage anxiety and intrusive thoughts, Humphreys said.

This is reflected in a study published in the earlier this year Journal of Conflict Archaeologywhich attempted to measure the value of such programs in terms of “military welfare.”

The researchers, from King’s Center for Military Health Research at King’s College London, found “sustained improvements in mental well-being that were evident in groups of serving and experienced military personnel who participated in an archaeology-based programme”.

Although the study concluded that more research is needed, the researchers – who are not affiliated with AVAR – added: “The improvements in mental well-being were evident after the archaeological excavation and remained significantly improved several months later.”

In the AVAR program, most participants are veterans with service-related physical disabilities and mental health issues, but the emphasis is on what they can do rather than what they can’t do, Humphreys said.

“Our focus is on what our veterans are doing now and what they will do in the future,” he added.

Ben Powers served as a staff officer in Iraq in 2006, followed by two deployments to Afghanistan. “During my Iraq tour, I served in the Army with my closest friend, Maj. Dave Taylor,” he told CNN via Humphreys in an email.

“Dave and I have been friends since 1994 when we served together in the air at Fort Bragg. I last saw Dave on FOB Falcon Iraq in September 2006. The next month he was KIA (killed in action).

“Losing Dave had a huge impact on my attitude and I’ve withdrawn from others for a long time. When I left the army in 2016, this withdrawal deepened as I no longer pursued my calling as a soldier.”

Veteran Ben Powers said the project appealed to him

Last September, Powers joined an AVAR delegation on a metal detector survey in Saratoga, New York, the site of a crucial American victory in the Revolutionary War.

Though he had no experience, Powers found the project, which included “excellent” training, transformative.

“What I knew about archeology was no more than modern popular culture, Indiana Jones-esque stuff,” he told CNN in a video call.

“I felt like I had a dozen brothers and sisters within an hour.

“As veterans, we already know how to show up on time and we know what it means to work hard. We know what it’s like to delve in and because we bonded very quickly, we were able to support each other and use those skills to get there.”

Though Powers is successful in his civilian job at a defense contractor, he recognizes there are challenges. “Most vets excel in their civilian careers, but it’s a very rare individual who finds the same level of dedication and fulfillment in what they do,” he said.

“Preserving the memories of the people who served at Saratoga and sharing that information with the current generation of veterans – that spoke to me as a higher purpose and something to stand behind.”

While in Saratoga, Powers became friends with Minnesota resident Kyle O’Connor, who served nearly 15 years in the Army.

“I served a deployment during Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2004-2005,” O’Connor told CNN in an email about Humphreys. “The best friend I ever had went on another tour after retraining as an infantryman. He felt he hadn’t done enough on his first tour.

Kyle O'Connor said he won one

“When he got home he was in very bad shape and died by suicide shortly after his return.”

O’Connor was devastated. Despite working hard to manage his situation, he eventually retired in October 2016 for medical reasons.

“I felt like I had lost my identity, I had lost my best friend and I had lost what I hoped to achieve from a 30-year career and to be a part of something really important,” he said.

Forging a new identity is a “complete struggle,” he told CNN in a video call. Until he attended one of Humphreys’ briefings on AVAR.

“I filled out the paperwork as he spoke,” he said.

Saratoga made O’Connor “fall in love with the program” and endowed him with a “new sense of uncovering the past,” he said.

He was so inspired that he and his wife bought metal detectors at home to pursue this newfound passion.

Meanwhile, he launched another AVAR project in Texas earlier this year, which saw the team searching for the exact location of the Battle of Medina between Spanish and Mexican revolutionaries during the Mexican War of Independence. A group of volunteers will return to this project in October.

“I would have stayed in the military for 30 years if I could,” O’Connor said. “It’s the next best thing, if not the best.”

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