ALBUQUERQUE, New Mexico (AP) -- Until a few years ago, the memory of three African-American soldiers was buried beneath the sandy, desert in New Mexico, their remains left behind by the military and to the mercy of looters.
With some investigating and modern forensics, government archaeologists excavated the remains and identified them as Army Pvts. Thomas Smith, David Ford and Levi Morris. They were among the famed Buffalo Soldiers, African-American members of the U.S. Army who served at remote outposts on the Western frontier in the years after the Civil War.
On July 28, more than 130 years since their deaths, they will finally be laid to rest with full military honors at the Santa Fe National Cemetery.
They will have named headstones with birth and death dates, and forensic sketches of what they looked like when they were alive will be displayed alongside each casket during the hour-long service.
Retired Army Maj. Gen. Julius Parker, one of the highest ranking African-American military officers, will deliver the eulogy while members of the Tucson-based Arizona Buffalo Soldiers Association, dressed in period uniforms, will serve as pallbearers.
The ceremony marks the end of an exhaustive project by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which exhumed more than 60 sets of human remains of men, women and children in 2007 after widespread grave looting was discovered at the historical Fort Craig cemetery in southern New Mexico.
The three soldiers were among the remains found during the looting investigation.
"It's a feeling of intense satisfaction and relief to know (these soldiers) will not be forgotten and that they will be remembered and taken care of,'' said Jeff Hanson, an archaeologist with the agency's Albuquerque office.
Fort Craig protected settlers from American Indian raids in the late 1800s. During the Civil War, Union troops stationed there fought the secessionist Confederacy as it moved into New Mexico from Texas in 1862. The three soldiers belonged to the U.S. Colored Troops, the African-American military regiments created after slavery ended.
The soldiers were identified using high-tech equipment and Army enlistment and medical records from Fort Craig.
Though the Bureau of Reclamation recovered Smith's skull early in the investigation, agency archaeologists could not find the rest of his remains. Looted coffins left several skeletons without their skulls, Hanson said.
After exhuming the cemetery, agency archaeologists and staff began cataloging and identifying the remains. But they couldn't ensure accuracy without modern forensic equipment, Hanson said.
In May, the agency called on Doug Owsley, a renowned forensic anthropologist with the Smithsonian Institution National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C. Over three weeks, Owsley and his team used CT scans, X-rays, bone density scans and isotope tests to analyze the remains.
Medical records showed that Morris died from an ax wound to the back, Ford succumbed to a spinal infection and Smith suffered complications from typhoid fever.
Based on the skull features, criminal forensic artist Det. Mary Brazas of the Bernalillo County Sheriff's Department created sketches of the soldiers. Researchers are thrilled to be able to put a face to the soldiers' names.
"It was just amazing to actually hold the skull and realize you're holding history,'' she said.
The soldiers will be buried near the unidentified remains from Fort Craig's cemetery. Those remains were earlier buried at the national cemetery and memorialized with a 1,200-pound (544-kilogram) granite and bronze marker.
The Bureau of Reclamation placed newspaper ads in the hometowns of Smith, Morris and Ford in hopes of finding descendants, but two of the soldiers were former slaves and finding family lineage has proven difficult, said agency spokeswoman Mary Perea Carlson.
Smith was from New Market, Kentucky, and died in 1866; Ford was from Taylor County, Kentucky, and died in 1868; and Morris was from Akron, Ohio, and died in 1877.
"The ceremony for these soldiers will be a nice closure,'' said Lisa Croft, the agency's area deputy manager. "The remains tell us the story of how hard life was out there on the frontier.''
The Smithsonian has kept a few bone fragments in hopes of identifying more remains.
Cliff Shields, director of the Santa Fe National Cemetery, said it's important to recognize soldiers from any U.S. conflict.
"To have them rest in peace in a national cemetery with honor and dignity is paramount,'' he said.