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Identification of Remains

Cooperative Efforts

DPMO leads and oversees this manpower intensive and time-consuming work as the lead agency in DoD for POW/MIA accounting. DPMO, AFDIL, CILHI, DIA (Stony Beach), JTF-FA, LSEL and the Service Casualty Offices combine their efforts to locate, recover, and identify remains. The recovery and identification of all un-recovered Americans resulting from hostile action became a permanent DoD goal in May 1976. That mission resides at CILHI and is overseen by DPMO and supported by all the other DoD organizations working towards the fullest possible accounting. In order to recover and identify remains, DoD analysts and investigators must sift through documents, interview witnesses, analyze data, and excavate sites seeking scant clues often hidden for decades.

The process of identification follows a logical path through the following steps: (1) Locating remains; (2) Recovering remains; (3) Identifying remains; (4) Reviewing the identification process. At the beginning of the identification process is the work to locate remains.

Locating Remains

DPMO, with other DoD agencies, develops information on known loss incidents to locate remains and determine logical excavation sites. Loss incident information is derived from wartime operational reports, military historians, eyewitness accounts, records from worldwide archival research and current intelligence reports. This information often provides investigative leads toward a loss site in a specific area. Possible excavation is then considered against factors such as site accessibility, security, safety hazards and approval of host nations as required. These sites may be in politically sensitive areas, underwater, or in remote locations strewn with dangerous explosives and mines, thus requiring careful consideration prior to sending in personnel. This whole process requires tremendous analytical persistence--over years--and often several site surveys are needed to pinpoint a recommended excavation site.

When officials decide to excavate a site, DPMO, CILHI and other agencies coordinate the deployment of a search and recovery team. CILHI is in the process of expanding its organization and currently maintains 14 search and recovery teams. By the end of Fiscal Year 2002 CILHI will be able to field 18 teams. Teams travel worldwide in support of DPMO, JTF-FA or self-deploy conducting surveys to pinpoint sites and excavations to recover remains. Each team includes a team leader, a recovery team noncommissioned officer in charge, a mortuary affairs specialist(s), a specially trained and qualified medic, and a photographer. Additionally, an explosive ordnance technician, a linguist, and an aircraft wreckage analyst may augment the team as needed.

Recovering Remains

Recovery of remains occurs in the following ways: (1) DoD excavations; (2) foreign governments provide remains; (3) unofficial friendly sources or refugees provide remains. When foreign governments and individuals provide remains to the U.S. Government, our experts have not been involved in the recovery efforts. This may cause problems in identifications if stringent archaeological techniques are not used. This is why CILHI prefers to be involved in excavations. In DoD excavations, forensic anthropologists from the CILHI's scientific staff always supervise the archaeological techniques used to recover human remains and material. Our digging crews carefully remove soil and sift it using screens that trap objects as small as the eyelet of a boot, a few links from a dog-tag chain or a gem of a class ring. CILHI anthropologists carefully catalog and store all remains for shipping back to their laboratory. They maintain a very careful and detailed record ensuring accountability for the remains.

Identifying Remains

CILHI makes identifications using different types of presumptive evidence. Presumptive evidence provides a logical reason to associate remains with an individual. An assortment of factors including the age of the remains at death, availability of records, and the condition of the remains determine the course of the investigation towards identification. In the search for presumptive evidence, many times the investigative process begins by looking at operational reports that help to identify or correlate remains. Typically, a comparison of remains against other loss incidents from the general location and time frame provides investigative leads.

CILHI uses investigative techniques that detail skeletal features (anthropologic), dental features (odontologic), and fingerprints as the primary means to establish a positive identification. A determination through anthropological means for the race, age, and height narrows the investigation. A comparison of that anthropological evidence against medical records of service members that fit into the general loss profile continues to narrow the scope of the investigation to a few possible loss candidates. If the remains yield usable dental or fingerprint evidence and that evidence can be compared against reliable records, a positive identification can be made. However, remains subjected to the violence of modern warfare or the ravages of time may no longer provide traditional means for identification. When biological remains cannot yield positive dental and fingerprint evidence, Deoxyribonucleic Acid (DNA) typing may provide additional evidence in support of identification.

DNA typing in support of identification resides in AFDIL and consists of the "Nuclear Deoxyribonucleic Acid" (nucDNA) and "Mitochondrial DNA" (mtDNA) programs (mtDNA) programs. AFDIL scientists support CILHI's identification program by conducting DNA typing to help identify American remains when skeletal remains, dental x-rays and fingerprints cannot provide a positive identification. Sometimes biological remains will not yield conclusive DNA results. In these cases, CILHI often uses LSEL's expertise.

Analysis of non-biological excavation material in support of identification resides primarily in LSEL. They will analyze the type of equipment found at the recovery site in support of CILHI's identifications. LSEL's analysis often results in investigative clues regarding whether the remains should have been at the recovery site or not. If a service member should have been at the excavation site, then the results of their investigative efforts sometimes lead to conclusions that the violence of the loss incident, followed by environmental exposure, has led to the total destruction and loss of remains. In some cases LSEL's analysis will point to the fact that the service member may not have been present at the excavation site.

Reviewing the Identification Process

Once CILHI establishes an identification, a group of independent, board-certified forensic consultants review the case file. If the consultants concur with CILHI, they submit the case file to the appropriate Service Casualty Office. A representative of that office then contacts the family and arranges to explain the case findings. The family may then elect to have the case file examined by an expert of their choosing. If the Person Authorized to Direct Disposition (PADD) requests, then the case is forwarded to the Armed Forces Identification Review Board (AFIRB). Once the AFIRB has reviewed the identification, the U.S. Government transfers the remains to a location selected by the individual's family for burial.