Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Bringing Them Home: How Should We ID Lost Soldiers

NPR and Propublica recently published a report in which they investigated the process by which unknown U.S. soldiers from WWII, Korea and the Vietnam wars are identified with the goal of returning the remains to family members. My ears pricked up because, as I wrote about in Lost Boys of WWII, I have a WWII soldier who died when the aircraft in which he was flying crashed into a mountain in Burma (now Myanmar). His mother went to her grave never knowing how her son died or if he suffered in the process. The records were only declassified after her death.

The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington Cemetery in Washington, D.C.

It turns out that the methods used by the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command (JPAC) to identify remains are outdated. In this age when DNA testing is routinely used to positively identify remains, including victims of the 9/11 attacks and even massacre victims buried in mass graves in Bosnia, the U.S. Government only uses DNA to confirm matches already made by other means. Methods such as examining teeth and measuring bones to determine height can only lead so far in the identification process, assuming the remains have been disinterred at all. The current process proceeds in the following manner:
  1. Historical records are analyzed to determine if identifying remains in a particular area (battlefield, crash site, etc.) is feasible.
  2. Archaeologists disinter remains.
  3. Physical remains are examined in the JPAC laboratory.
  4. DNA is used only to confirm an identification made based on the previous work.

In contrast, a DNA-led strategy would involve disinterring available remains, conducting DNA tests on them as well as on living family members of the deceased and then comparing the two data sets to identify matches.

Of the approximately 83,000 people listed as prisoners of war or missing in action, the Pentagon estimates that about half could be identified and returned to family members. At the current rate of about seventy identifications per year, the chances of returning very many within the lifetime of anyone who actually knew them is. . . well. . . not very good. In addition, during the several hundred years it would take to identify all of these lost soldiers at the current rate, living family members appropriate for DNA testing could die out making positive identification next to impossible. While I am sure that those charged with the difficult work of examining the bones of the fallen try their hardest to reunite them with their families, it seems crazy to me that we spend over $100 million dollars each year using outdated methods with so little to show for it, especially when DNA-led techniques used in other recovery missions can quickly produce many more results. As an example, the effort in Bosnia to identify victims in mass graves yielded about 400 identifications per month at the height of the project. 400 identifications per month or 4800 IDs/year versus an average of 70 per year. Hmmm. If the goal is to bring soldiers home I know which method I would choose.

Other problems with the process of identifying POW/MIAs include several layers of bureaucracy and a reluctance to disinter multiple remains in the hope of identifying a single soldier. Some families have done their own investigations into the available records to try to narrow the field. Even in cases when the families believe their loved one is among a set of remains the powers that be have refused to remove them for testing apparently because they didn't want to disturb men who had already been honorably buried. According the NPR/Propublica report only about 4% of the cases for disinterment move forward. While I can only speak for myself, if my soldier's remains were in a group grave I would be happy to have the remains disinterred if it meant that DNA testing could be done to possibly bring my man home.

My soldier and his comrades will likely never be repatriated because of poor relations with Myanmar, the uncertainty of the crash site and the fact that any remains are surely long gone. But for families who have soldiers buried in group unknown graves, I wish they stood a reasonable chance of bringing their loved ones home. Unfortunately, unless the current state of affairs changes, most will never be able to obtain closure by laying to rest their men who gave their lives in defense of their country, in marked graves.

You can read more about this story here.

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