Last week I wrote about bracelets worn for the the Prisoners of War (POW) and Missing in Action (MIA) during the Vietnam War. Some of the included links told of American remains identified long after the end of the war, which reminded me of a thriller I read in the 1990s. I can’t remember the title or the author, but the use of the Central Identification Laboratory in Hawaii (CILHI) as a major plot point has stayed with me all these years.
Today part of the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA), CILHI is the world’s largest forensic anthropology laboratory. It is one piece of this organization of dedicated military and civilian personnel whose mission it is to provide an accounting of all our missing service members. Click here to see their latest news about recent identifications.
DPAA actively searches for tens of thousands of missing Americans from World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War and the Cold War. Finding American remains are the job of search and recovery teams made up of anthropologists, medics, photographers, linguists, explosive ordnance disposal technicians and any other experts required for a particular situation. They use known data about battle sites and crash sites, stories told by locals, new discoveries of airplane parts and personal effects to prioritize their missions.
The search and recovery teams generally work in places where there are hardships. Dangers include unexploded ordnance, extreme weather, poisonous reptiles and insects, disease, extreme terrain, local culture and national politics.
The current numbers of missing from the DPAA website:
- There are more than 73,000 unaccounted Americans from World War II. The majority of those are presumed lost at sea and unrecoverable at the moment.
- There are almost 8,000 still unaccounted from the Korean War. As you can imagine, we don’t get much help from North Korea and the U.S. stopped sending recovery teams there in 2005 due to security concerns.
- More than 1,600 are still unaccounted from the Vietnam War. Search and recovery teams frequently work in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia.
- The Cold War has126 unaccounted. Most of those were air crews and many are presumed lost at sea.
When remains are recovered and repatriated, the lab goes to work. The methods used for identification have changed over the years as technology has changed. One of their most powerful tools is the forensic odontologist. Teeth are one of the hardest surfaces in the human body and therefore the most likely to survive intact. Also, not everyone has the same dental work done the same way, meaning that teeth can be almost as individual as finger prints. And with teeth, dental records are often available, so the researchers are not simply relying on memories and stories from family and friends.
Another tool more recently available is DNA. The way I understand it, the only DNA you can get from bone is mitochondrial DNA, which goes through the mother’s line. This means it is sometimes difficult to find descendants for DNA to confirm identification.
Once an identification has been confirmed, the parent military service informs the next of kin. The family has the choice of having their loved one buried at Arlington National Cemetery or a cemetery closer to home. No matter which the family chooses, the no-longer-missing service member is buried with full military honors.
Although many have been found and identified, the work is not done. Bringing them home is a promise our country makes to our service members and their families. With dedication, and possibly some technology we can’t yet even imagine, more families can finally know the fate of their love ones.