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Friday, June 2, 2023

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Abbey (second from left) and his students. Abbey (second from left) and his students.

BentProp Aztecs

San Diego State University students are contributing to the return of Americans missing in action during WWII.
By Hallie Jacobs

San Diego State University is keeping America's promise to bring patriots home.

With the help of a President's Leadership Fund grant, three students participated in a mission to Palau as part of the BentProp Project — an initiative dedicated to locating and assisting with identifying American prisoners of war and those who went missing in action in the Western Pacific during WWII.

Derek Abbeythe assistant military liaison officer in San Diego State University's Joan and Art Barron Veterans Center and a retired Major with the U.S. Marines — helps lead missions to repatriate Americans believed to have gone missing in Palau.

Also participating in this mission were Jade Dadiz, Jacob Jiron and Olivia Chavez, students who have studied extensively in the areas of political science, psychology and public relations. Abbey said he chose social science students because he believed they would provide unique insights into the findings.

Abbey's team helped locate an avenger bomber plane that was linked to three men missing in action. Using data gathered before the mission, BentProp participants found the plane right before the students arrived on the island. Consequently, the students were able to contribute to the mission through their own independent research projects.

"We wanted this to be a mutually-beneficial experience," Abbey said. "Our past collaborations have had a science, technology, engineering and mathematics focus, but there's a lot more to this mission than these aspects, so we wanted to look at the BentProp mission from a social perspective."

Student success

From meeting the former president of Palau to interviews with family members of MIAs, the students were able to participate extensively in the mission. 

Chavez — a senior majoring in interdisciplinary studies with an emphasis in English, political science and international security and conflict resolution — used the mission as a case study for how a non-governmental organization can strengthen diplomatic relations amongst nations.

"The BentProp project is vital for many reasons, but to me, it is about the moral responsibility that the BentProp Project carries in fulfilling its mission and values," she said. "It’s the opportunity to bring closure, to finally tell the ending of a story that began seventy-one years ago. It means everything; and the value of this project is intangible just as much as it is tangible. It’s taking a very dark time in history and giving hope." 

Dadiz, a junior studying interdisciplinary studies with an emphasis in psychology, philosophy and communication and, focused her research on how the BentProp Project helps families of MIAs move beyond the first stage of grief being denial in accordance to a five stage model.

"Spending time in Palau helped me live and experience the things I had been studying on paper all semester long," she said. "This trip was truly special to me because I got to travel for a purpose to one of the most beautiful places in the world. The collaboration between the BentProp Project and SDSU highlights the value we place on human life."

Jiron, a senior public relations major, studied how the BentProp Project interacted with wider audiences, including local Palauans, non-government entities and civilians. 

"I gained a new perspective on the world, on war, on the United States, on Palau and on public relations," he said. "I gained a lasting bond with individuals I never thought I would meet in my entire life, yet now I am a part of their organization. I got to be one of the first of hopefully many SDSU students to participate in the experience."

Palauan promise

An interesting takeaway from the mission is the impact WWII has had on Palau years after the war ceased.

Although project staff work with government officials and are well-respected within the local communities, interacting with the civilians has not been a major part of the mission in the past. This was an important aspect of the students' research while on the island. 

They explored more effective ways to communicate with the communities and continue to build positive relationships between the different organizations involved.

"Palauans believe that when you pass away, you return to your mother's home," Abbey said. "This aligns perfectly with the BentProp mission, so Palauans have been very accepting of the mission and its goals."

Keeping America's Promise

Abbey and his students will present their findings at Aztecs Keeping America’s Promise.  The event begins at 5 p.m. on May 7 at the Parma Payne Goodall Alumni Center and is free and open to the public.