Military searches for members lost in past wars
by NC SentinelMedill Reports - Washington, DC, USA
Military searches for members lost in past wars
by Joyce Chang
Mar 20, 2008
WASHINGTON -- As people observe the fifth anniversary of the Iraq war this week, the American military continues a labor-intensive search for troops lost long ago in other conflicts.
“As long as the American public finds this mission necessary, we will continue searching,” said Air Force Capt. Mary Olsen, a public affairs officer for the Defense Prisoner of War/Missing Personnel office. “There is no timeline for finishing it.” Olsen said the military identifies the remains of nearly 100 service members per year.
“The goal is that we are trying to work ourselves out of a job,” said Jim Russell, chief of the missing persons branch at the Air Force Personnel Center, which updates military families on search efforts. “We are trying to account for all the unaccounted for.”
Once investigative teams pinpoint an area believed to contain human remains, the Hawaii-based Joint Prisoners of War/Missing in Action Accounting Command (JPAC) sends an excavation team led by forensic anthropologists and diggers, according to JPAC spokesman Troy Kitch.
The team divides the area into sections to keep track of the digging, Kitch said. Grid by grid, they dig until they reach soil that has not been impacted by a crash or burial, which they can tell by the characteristics of the soil. Kitch said that if the team finds remains on the outer edges of a grid, they must dig two grids out from there and keep expanding until they no longer find any more remains. This process typically takes nearly 30 to 40 days, according to Kitch.
Once the team has gathered all the remains at a site, an Army Central Identification Laboratory scientist makes a biological profile based on key characteristics such as age, race, sex, stature and fracture lines. JPAC boasts that is has the world’s largest forensic anthropology lab, with sophisticated “crime scene” level identification technology, according to Kitch.
Olsen said the condition of remains really varies and that, for example, older remains from World War II may be easier to identify and more complete than those from Vietnam, which has more acidic soil. Dental records are the primary way that remains are identified, often combined with historical evidence, Kitch said.
Kitch said that in about 75 percent of cases, the office must go a step further and use DNA testing. The Armed Forces DNA Identification Lab in Rockville, Md., extracts DNA from the bones of remains. Since the military did not routinely get DNA samples from service members until 1992, older remains are almost exclusively identified using Mitochondrial DNA.
Mitochondrial DNA is maternally inherited and, because it is not unique to families or individuals, it is used as more of an exclusionary tool for determining whether an individual is related to others.
For example, Jackie Raskin-Burns, a supervisory DNA analyst at the lab, said about 7 percent of Caucasians share the same Mitochondrial DNA profile. If Mitochondrial DNA of remains does not match the DNA of an expected maternal relative, then that person is excluded from being considered for that identification. If there is a match, the lab must consider how prevalent that particular DNA profile is in the population that they’re considering.
Olsen said the military sometimes hires genealogists to locate family members and to obtain DNA samples if they believe they are close to an identification but need DNA to verify it.
In 1992, the military began collecting Nuclear DNA, which is longer-lasting and unique to each individual, from service members.
Even when DNA is tested, the forensic evidence is compared with historical information such as eyewitness accounts of a plane crash, and with material evidence such as recovered plane parts that match the type of airplane a person was lost in.
The DNA lab officials acknowledged that there are occasionally disputes with families over identification and that some choose to have independent testing done.
However, some families of service members whose remains have been recovered are relieved for the closure that the investigations bring.
Julie Zouzounis of California was surprised last fall by news that, after 35 years, the military had found her father’s remains.
“All of the sudden it brings back all those old feelings and that sense of loss again,” Zouzounis said, who was a child when her father, Air Force Maj. John L. Carroll, died.
Carroll was lost in a plane crash in Vietnam on Nov. 7, 1972. Zouzounis said two rescue attempts at the time were unsuccessful and that her family never expected to recover any remains, especially considering that a 2,000-pound bomb had been dropped on the crash site.
Olsen said that, for many families, it is as though the casualty happened yesterday. Russell said the reaction from families ranges from a “hug or handshake and a ‘thank you’” to anger from families who are still hurting and blame the government.