Today we arrived at the cemetery at 6:30 am and were able to start our work under the rising sun. Our first goal this morning, was to create steps leading from the excavated area to the surface for us to be able to work efficiently and safely. As we worked, there would be peaks of sunshine complemented by overcast skies and cool winds.
After completing our steps came our first challenge which was uncovering the first burial. Our group quickly found that a portion of the burial extended under one of the walls, requiring us to cut away a section of the wall and then undercutting the same spot another foot just to reach the end. Our group worked efficiently and tirelessly; taking turns every 4-5 minutes, that way everyone had an opportunity to rest and drink plenty of water.
Tomorrow our goal is to tackle the next two burials. Our area is especially tricky because we must excavate the first three burials in our section (including the one that was excavated today), then rebury the area to excavate the last two burials. All the burials are estimated to be at least 5 ft deep but what we have found thus far in this area is that the burials are closer to 6 feet down. Our entire group is extremely thankful for the assistance of the excavator operator, Silvestre, for his assistance with digging the area. It is slightly terrifying to think about where we would be without him. The next three days are going to be extremely hot with temperatures expected to be in the high 90s to 100s with total sunshine. Even though every evening we have come back exhausted, I have a suspicion that these past two days are going to be considered our ‘easy’ days due to the rising temperatures.
It is hard physical work that we are doing, but it is also hard work emotionally. For me, it always comes back to the reasons why we volunteered on this humanitarian issue. No one should be left unidentified and everyone has a right to know what happened to their loved ones. That is all the motivation we need to continue this mission and that is what is going to help us get through the next couple of days. That and iced cold cokes.
“It’s the eye of the tiger, it’s the thrill of the fight…” Settling down for the evening and reflecting back on today’s events, I can’t help but to think about the lyrics of our ‘pump up’ song that we played on our way to ORPL this morning. For the first leg of our trip, we had a goal of completing a total of 6 skeletal analyses- approximating 2 a day. I am excited to say that we not only met our goal but completed an additional 3 analyses ending with a grand total of 9. To say we ended the first part of our journey on a high note does not cover the feeling of accomplishment that our whole team felt as we drove away from ORPL. For our group members, this was our first time participating in an analysis season and I feel that we set our goals fairly conservatively. The fact that we were able to surpass those goals and accomplish three more is incredibly exciting. This means that we have an additional three more people who are ready to have DNA samples submitted and have the potential of being identified. While we are able to reflect on these feelings of accomplishment, we know this trip is not about us. It is about getting people identified and today we came that much closer.
The past two days we were able to complete 4 analyses, today we did a total of 5. I feel that today we were able to complete as many analyses as we did is because we had found our rhythm. One of the more beneficial things that our group does every evening is discuss the positive aspects that occurred that day and where we can improve. When we got to the facility this morning, we knew exactly what we needed to do to get as many analyses accomplished in the short amount of time we had to do them. We were also joined today by veteran team member Ryan, who currently lives here in TX.
This experience has been extremely rewarding for many reasons. Our group has spent the last year sitting in a classroom learning different methodologies and this trip has allowed us to apply those methods in an actual case setting. Each case, each analysis, is incredibly different and has allowed our team members to see a wide range of variation with in the skeletal system that we may not be exposed to back in Indiana. We were able to see how different traits are expressed in different human populations and at first it was quite challenging. It forced us, as students, to think outside of our comfort zone and adjust how we would normally approach a case. Not to mention the one on one experience we got with our professor and fearless leader, Dr. Latham. I know I can speak for all when I say that we are incredibly grateful for the patience and time she spent with us going over ever feature and then giving us the opportunity to give our own assessments and being completely hands on through out the entire process. I am excited and anxious to see how our trip continues as we set forth into the second half of our journey. This past week has not been easy and I know that once we get to our next destination that we will have a new set of challenges that await us. That is what makes this process exciting; it is venturing into the unknown and not really knowing what to expect. What I do know is that I have a great group of people who will be by my side as we push our way forward and for that, I am incredibly grateful. Until next time, let Journey guide us on our way…. “Don’t stop, believing”.
Tomorrow, myself and the rest of our group will be heading to South Texas to start another field season. This will be my second time in Texas and I am excited to be able to participate in this humanitarian effort. This field season will be different from the last because the first part of our trip with be spent at Texas State University to assist with skeletal analysis. This will be a first for me and I am not entirely sure what to expect. I am excited to visit the lab at Texas State University and to see their facilities. As for the skeletal analysis, I suspect this will be especially challenging for many reasons.
The second part of our trip, our group along with Texas State faculty and students, will be traveling to Starr County Texas to start excavations of graves of unidentified border crossers. Although I had the opportunity to go to Texas in January, I feel like these two trips are going to be vastly different for many reasons. In January we certainly lucked out with the weather; in fact, one day it felt like we never left Indiana with how cold it was. Our group also benefited with having been to Sacred Heart Cemetery in Falfurrias, TX for several years before the most recent trip. This field season we will be going in the middle of May where the temperatures will most likely be in the high 90’s (if not higher) not to mention we will be in a completely new area. New city, new cemetery, new soil- all of these things play into our old saying of ‘expect the unexpected’. I am confident in saying that the title of this trip, like so many in the past, will be centered around the unexpected. The excitement I feel for this trip also comes with a heavy heart knowing that this trip would not be happening if these people had not died in an attempt to flee their home countries. Something that I find comfort in, is knowing that at the end of every field season, we are one step closer to getting identifications and one step closer to returning them to their families. This will be the most challenging field season yet and I’m confident in my group, as well as Texas State, that we will be successful in our endeavors. I can also say that I’m not terribly excited to be faced with my only true enemy, the dreaded sticker burrs. They are literally the worst.
I see this excursion as an adventure of hope, happiness, and hard work. I love the challenge and the inspiration that comes afterwards, it just shows how rewarding this experience is to all of the volunteers. Here’s to a new season of hope and adventure- stay tuned for our blog posts and if you have not already, check out our short video that our team members made! You can also help support our trip by donating here or here.