Project Recover Lead Archaeologist
Drew Pietruszka, Ph.D., is an underwater archaeologist at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography and Project Recover’s Lead Archaeologist.
The role of the Lead Archaeologist is to ensure that Project Recover incorporates the highest level of archaeological and forensic methods and documentation in all its activities.
Dr. Pietruszka designs, plans, and directs forensic and archaeological investigations to bring MIAs home. He leads the search, documentation, and excavation of underwater crash sites on a crash site.
“A part of our obligation as citizens is to give back to our society. There are many ways to serve. This particular mission is the way I’ve found to serve others. I feel we owe it to those who have given the ultimate to honor their sacrifice and, when we can, bring closure to their families.’Andrew Pietruszka, Ph.D.
Preparation for MIA Missions
Drew serves as the subject matter expert for all archaeological and forensic work conducted by the organization. The scope of his oversight is significant.
He ensures Project Recover’s field methods, project personnel, and reporting are in line with the MIA field’s best practices and compliant with international archaeological/forensic policies.
Drew ensures Project Recover complies with all local, state, national, and international regulations. He communicates and coordinates with US government agencies (including Defense POW/MIA Agency, Department of Defense, Department of State, and the Naval History and Heritage Command), foreign governments, and international agencies.
“While our focus is on recovering U.S. MIAs, it is important to remember that these crash sites are not only our history. They are also the history of the people who live where these sites are found. The wars significantly impacted their ancestors, just like they did ours. When we go into the field, we are guests in their country. We must respect local customs and laws and work together to meet all parties’ needs.”Dr. Andrew Pietruszka
Drew also works with Project Recover’s Lead Historian, Dr. Colin Colbourn, to develop a database of American MIAs worldwide. The database is a resource for gathering information about MIAs and evaluating potential search and recovery mission cases. The database has more than 700 cases, representing nearly 3,000 MIAs. (Have a family MIA? Contact Us)
Underwater Archaeologist: On-Site
Project Recover conducts two main types of field missions. Investigations focused on finding and documenting new sites associated with MIA cases and recoveries to excavate MIA remains from previously investigated sites.
When Drew is on a mission such as the 2021 MIA Recovery Mission in Palau or the 2021 Investigation in Vietnam, he is one of the scientists overseeing the mission.
Project Recover investigations utilize state-of-the-art technology like REMUS 100 autonomous underwater vehicles (AUV) equipped with a variety of sensors (sidescan sonar, magnetometer, camera, multibeam sonar, etc.) and remotely operated vehicles (ROV) to scan the seafloor and document sites.
Drew works with the team’s engineers, oceanographers, data specialists, and divers to apply these technologies and interpret findings. The survey uses a find, fix, and finish model as a framework for organizing the workflow. In this concept, daily operations provide data analyzed in the field by Drew and the team. Each day’s information guides the next phase of the mission’s operations. Throughout the survey, the right sensing technologies and undersea vehicles must be selected for each job.
“Often, there is a trade-off between resolution and the area we can cover. Typically, these two parameters are inversely proportional (sensors that “see” far underwater do so with reduced resolution), so there is a trade-off in sensing performance that we must constantly balance in the field.”
When a new site is discovered, Drew works with the team to document the site. The team can document the site using SCUBA divers or the team’s AUVs or ROV. Documentation often includes still images, video, acoustic imagining, measurements, and observations. The data gathered is predominantly focused on identifying the site and aiding future MIA recovery mission planning.
“I spent four years leading underwater recoveries with DPAA. When working with the Project Recover team to document a site, I’m always thinking about what I would want to know beforehand if tasked to carry out a recovery at this site. I ensure we capture that information and share it with our partners at DPAA.”
Leading a recovery mission, Drew relies heavily on his training as an archaeologist.
Initially, Drew needs to determine how deep the team will need to excavate in particular areas of the crash site. Drew may task a diver to collect sand from 0-20 cm deep in an assigned section. The team will put the accumulated sediment through a screen to see if crash-related artifacts exist.
We are constantly working to scientifically gather data, interpret it, and use it to assess the site and plan our next step in excavation.
After the team has a clear picture of the strata 0-20 cm deep, Drew tasks a diver to excavate at 20-40 cm deep.
Drew interprets the provenience of the artifacts and uses it to inform the strategy. Provenience is the exact location – horizontally and vertically – where an artifact is found on an archaeological or forensic site.
“The spatial relationship between objects is important,” Drew said. “If we find two sets of dog tags, for instance, our leading assumption is that the one nearest to a particular set of human remains will help us identify that MIA.”
As a result, Drew maps the crash site meticulously. First, he makes a scale computer drawing of the site. Then he guides the team to create an archaeological grid out of PVC pipe at the site.
Divers bring the PVC grid underwater and arrange it on the seafloor. In this way, the team has common points of reference. What Drew discusses with divers above water, divers see in the grid when they go below.
Drew keeps a daily excavation log, tracking what units are excavated and to what depth. He also tracks what objects are found, in what unit, and at what depth.
Underwater Archaeology: Reporting
Archaeologists often say, “one day in the field equals ten days in the lab.” The same rule applies to Project Recover missions.
As Lead Archaeologist, Drew spends a lot of time analyzing data and writing reports to share with Project Recover’s partners, including Defense POW/MIA Agency, Department of Defense, Naval History and Heritage Command, and International Historic Preservation Offices.
Many of the crash sites discovered by Project Recover are in bad shape, the wrecking process and years underwater having taken their toll. Once back from the field, Drew spends days pouring over all the pictures and videos the team collected at the site matching key components of the aircraft with representative samples located in Project Recovers library of parts catalogs and flight manuals.
Drew’s goal is to find portions of wreckage that can either identify:
- the type of aircraft,
- a specific aircraft, or
- If it is associated with any particular MIA. For example, if the pilot is MIA, where is the aircraft’s cockpit within the debris field?
Once Drew has solved as much of the puzzle as possible, he writes his findings in a comprehensive report. Once complete, he passes the report to DPAA. DPAA then evaluates the site for further work..
Childhood: Finding Passions
Drew grew up in New York, Illinois, Virginia, Tennessee, and Florida. Drew loved the outdoors as a child and explored the woods tirelessly with his brothers. They were thrilled to discover evidence of an old homestead at their home in Richmond, Virginia. They investigated the old chimney and brickwork foundation. Drew wandered through the old graveyard, wondering about the people and families who used to live there. Every piece of old farm equipment, rusted tin can, and old Mason jar further captured his imagination.
“I didn’t like to read as a kid, but these things brought history to life for me. I would always imagine who the people who made these things were. What were their lives like? Where were they from?”
Those early years playing in the forest and excavating for hidden treasures foreshadowed Drew’s future career as an archaeologist.
As a teen, Drew lived in Florida. There he discovered his love of water. He surfed and became a SCUBA diver there. It, too, would influence his choice later to focus on underwater archaeology.
A Turning Point: Blackbeard’s Ship and Underwater Archaeology
At the University of Central Florida, Drew majored in biology; however, he never lost his interest in the past. He took classes in archaeology and anthropology whenever his schedule permitted. As he was completing college, updates about the discovery of Black Beard’s ship, the Queen Anne’s Revenge, peppered the news.
It was an ‘aha’ moment for Drew.
Underwater archaeology was a novel field that he hadn’t previously known existed. It was perfect for Drew, blending his love of history with his passion for diving and the water.
He went to East Carolina University and earned a Master’s degree in Maritime Studies/Nautical Archaeology in 2005.
Pursuing a Doctorate & World of Travel
Drew went to Syracuse University to earn a Ph.D. in Anthropology focused on archaeology. He wanted the rigorous academics of combining anthropology with written and archeological records.
His doctoral program also opened up a world of travel.
Drew’s research focused on African-European contact in West Africa during the Atlantic Trade. Over three trips, he spent close to a year living there.
When his research permitted, he and his buddies traveled extensively, with a plane ticket, a Lonely Planet, and no particular plans. They hopped a local riverboat to Timbuktu, slept in the streets of Mali, and backpacked through Burkina Faso and Niger.
“One of the things I love about travel is it reminds you of how good humanity is.”
The Ghanaian People Prompt Desire for Service
Specifically, Dr. Pietruszka’s dissertation focused on excavating and interpreting two European ships discovered at Elmina, Ghana. Drew spent seven months living there continuously while carrying out his research.
He lived in a little local house in a small village. He ate local food and worked with the local fishermen every day. He got to know the community.
“It was a seminal change for me.”
Drew has traveled to more than 50 countries and said 99.9% of his interactions with people were affirming.
But Drew’s time in Ghana was eye-opening. There, he witnessed the extremes of both poverty and generosity. He was overwhelmed by the kindness of people who had little but always had something to give a guest in their home or village.
“When I returned home, I longed for service that would make my career more meaningful.”
Drew did not know then what purpose he would serve, but he knew life as an underwater archeologist alone would not be enough.
JPAC: Blending Underwater Archaeology with Service
When Drew returned to Syracuse to finish his doctorate, he contemplated how to incorporate a greater degree of service in his career.
He saw a brochure about JPAC, the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command, now called Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA). Their mission is to give the fullest possible accounting of the country’s MIAs to their families and the nation.
A lightbulb went off for Drew.
Working to help bring MIAs home combined service with underwater archaeology.
Despite the tiny field of underwater archaeology, Drew had never heard of JPAC.
He searched online until he found an email address.
Then Drew wrote a short email introducing himself, his skillset, and why DPAA should hire him.
For six months, Drew heard nothing.
Then, out of the blue, he got a call. The phone call turned into an interview and ended with a job offer.
Within seven months, Drew finished his Ph.D. and moved to Hawaii to start as a Forensic Archaeologist with JPAC.
JPAC: Extensive Field Work
Drew began work as a Forensic Archaeologist with JPAC in 2011. He worked there for four years. Much of that time was spent in the field, away from home, overseeing recovery excavations. It was equally extraordinary and rewarding.
As a forensic underwater archaeologist, Drew helped oversee JPAC’s underwater operations. He planned and directed recovery operations. He helped implement improvements that increased the number of annual missions and led to more recoveries.
While there, Drew completed the five-month long US Navy Dive School, Second Class Diver training. He is one of only a handful of civilians to have completed the course.
With Drew’s help, JPAC’s underwater program was growing, reinventing itself to a new level of excellence. Drew was named interim director of DPAA’s Laboratory at Offutt Air Force Base, Omaha, Nebraska.
Drew’s family, however, was also growing, and his wife was starting medical school.
Project Recover: Lead Archaeologist
Pat Scannon, Eric Terrill, and Mark Moline were in the beginning stages of forming Project Recover. They had located the Punnell Hellcat and the Savage TBM Avenger in 2014 and knew they could accomplish great things in partnership.
It just so happened that the Project Recover finds landed on Drew’s desk at JPAC. In 2015 he led a team of military divers in the recovery at the crash site of Lt. William Q. Punnell. Drew’s time in Palau overlapped with Project Recover’s that year. It allowed him to meet Pat, Eric, and Mark in person. Drew also knew they could accomplish great things in partnership.
When Project Recover got funding from The Friedkin Group in 2015, Andrew Pietruszka, Ph.D., was the first person the team hired.
Drew was hired as an underwater archaeologist postdoctoral researcher with the University of Delaware’s Earth, Ocean, & Environment in 2016.
Then he was hired as an Underwater Archaeologist and Academic Program Management Officer at the Coastal Observatory Research and Development Center at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California, San Diego.
Today, Drew continues to work at Scripps and is the Lead Archaeologist for Project Recover.
Family, Food, and Fun
Drew and his wife Sarah live in Salt Lake City, Utah. Together, they have three children: Seeger, Sadie, and Jack. Sarah is a pediatrician completing a Sports Medicine fellowship at the University of Utah.
When not out in the field or researching MIA cases, Drew likes to spend his time with his family exploring Utah’s amazing outdoors. He loves snowboarding, hunting, fishing, and hiking in the surrounding mountains.
Drew’s other passion in life is food, particularly cooking. When Drew and Sarah first met, he used to make elaborate multi-course meals with creative presentation and plating. Drew still loves to cook with three children, but it’s not as fancy. Some of the kids’ favorites include chicken and dumplings, gumbo, and breakfast burritos (for dinner, of course).
“One day, when I retire, I want a little food truck. I just love to cook. I grew up in a house where my mom and dad often cooked. We always sat down and ate as a family. It’s fun, a release. It’s the creative side of me.”