Naval Air Warfare Center Training Services Division (NAWCTSD) /NSA-Orlando commanding officer, Capt. Dan “Stuckey” Covelli, welcomed everyone to the DPAA panel, “How the DoD is Recovering American Military POW/MIAs and the Science Behind It,” by sharing his gratitude for all the work that the DPAA team does to provide the fullest possible accounting to missing personnel, their families, and their nation.
Following Covelli, DPAA presented a documentary showcasing the process of identification, which begins with analysis and investigation for each deceased personnel file. Using all the information gathered, small teams are sent to a location to conduct on-site interviews that hopefully correlate a site with one or more missing Americans. With enough evidence, the site is recommended for excavation and recovery. After the recovery process, all evidence is brought to the lab to continue the identification process. Many individuals are identified through DNA analysis using a bone sample. DPAA only makes an identification when all evidence, remains, artifacts, and historical documents identify the same person.
After the video but before the program began, Karen Saunders, SES, program executive officer for Simulation, Training, and Instrumentation, presenting Team Orlando coins to the members of the DPAA panel in gratitude for their service and appreciation for their presentation.
Fern Sumpter Winbush, DPAA principal deputy director, shared the goal of the agency, “Fulfilling our nation’s promise and that’s what the men and women of DPAA do every day.”
The mission of the DPAA is widely recognized as a humanitarian effort, as they work tirelessly with 45 countries around the world to recover the remains of fallen Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, Marines, and DoD civilians. This global effort has been made possible by partnering with nations like Vietnam, which continued to support the mission despite the challenges posed by COVID-19. The DPAA expresses gratitude for the diplomatic efforts that led to North Korea turning over 55 boxes in June 2018, which to date have led to the identification of more than 80 missing American service members from the Korean War.
The DPAA is in Orlando to host a regional family member update for all the families in a 350-mile radius. Families are able to come learn about what DPAA is doing and hear updates about their particular loved one’s case.
Over 300 families were expected to attend. Winbush said, “It’s all about taking care of the families, keeping the promise and making sure they understand that we have partners in both the government and externally that help us every single day.”
She shared it’s a special moment at these events when the DPAA team can share with a family there’s been a positive identification of their family member who had been unaccounted for.
According the Winbush, 81,000 service members still remain unaccounted for. Of those, 1,121 are Floridians with 906 from World War II, 156 from the Korean War, 4 from the Cold War, and 54 from the Vietnam War. Recently DPAA was able to identify a Floridian from Miami Beach, Staff Sergeant Sanford Finger, U.S. Army, who was killed during the Vietnam War. Finger was recovered after numerous attempts from 1994 to June of 2021.
Over the years, as new technology has been developed, new means of research have emerged. Previously, researchers and historians shared physical records to gather and interpret information. Now, they can share data digitally to any location.
“The DPAA has evolved not just from a technological standpoint, but a forensic standpoint as well,” explained Winbush. “The advancements in the laboratory have made it that much easier to identify remains.”
Stephen Thompson, family and veteran liaison for the DPAA lab in Hawaii, followed Winbush to discuss the early years of the DPAA. Initially the command was about 40 people, 35 in Hawaii and the rest in Bangkok who would interview refugees to obtain any information about missing Americans. Thompson elaborated, “The idea was if we could go to Vietnam and determine the fate of an individual, that would go a long way in the process of recovery.”
The team had to compile the original investigation folders that contained photographs, basic information about the loss, background on the individual, and the biological profile. In the early days, the recovery effort was limited by technology. and as new things were developed the success increased exponentially.
Central Florida’s Tech Grove hosts DPAA
Major Leah Ganoni, chief of Hawaii public affairs, represented all the service members who are part of DPAA. The DPAA is a joint mission with just under 300 joint service members. Ganoni said, “We get to work on the mission every day, to pay the promise of no man left behind. We know we are always standing on the shoulders of those that come before us, and in this instance, some of those are service members who never came home.”
All the teams deploy from Hawaii regardless of their destination. There are four detachments worldwide that help facilitate the investigative and recovery efforts: Laos, Thailand, Vietnam, and Germany.
Dr. Debra Zinni, deputy director of the DPAA Hawaii lab, explained that the DPAA laboratory began in 1947 and was created to identify the deceased from World War II. “A lot of the methods in forensic anthropology were developed from methods used to identify the deceased from World War II to the Korean War,” she said.
The DPAA laboratory employs approximately 150 highly-skilled personnel, the majority of whom are board-certified forensic anthropologists. DPAA boasts two state-of-the-art facilities, one located at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickham, Hawaii, and the other at Offutt Air Force Base, Nebraska. Both of these cutting-edge laboratories are fully accredited to international standards, ensuring the highest quality of work and results.
“It is really important that we are accredited because when we speak to families, they know the information we are giving them has gone through a rigorous quality assurance process,” explained Zinni.
The goal of the DPAA laboratory is to reach 200 or more identifications a year. All the identifications are made on multiple lines of evidence, it is never just one piece of evidence. The forensic anthropologist will examine the remains to assemble a biological profile that determines the age, sex, and ancestry of an individual. In addition, they search for identifying characteristics on the remains that can be corroborated with medical records.
One innovation the laboratory uses is a comparison of chest radiographs. The military used to take chest radiographs during induction when service members joined to check for tuberculosis. Comparing the vertebrae and collarbones can either exclude or match a certain individual to set of domains.
The newest accredited discipline the DPAA laboratory obtained is stable isotope analysis. This evaluation looks at geographic profiles of individuals by analyzing markers in bones created from the water and food consumed based on a person’s place of origin.
Dr. Timothy McMahon, director of DoD DNA operations (AFDIL and AFMES) for the Armed Forces Medical Examiner System, focused on the DNA analysis involved in the identification of remains. In the present-day accounting, from Operation Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom, there are no unknown service members because DNA reference cards are now collected from every single active member of the Armed Forces.
McMahon went on to discuss his work in partnership with DPAA. Nuclear DNA testing is a new method set to be brought online in December. AFMES has DNA family references for 92% of the original 8,100 missing from Korea, 85% for Vietnam missing, and 24% from the 38,000 missing from World War II.
McMahon explained the breakthrough for the new method, “For our assay if you are within four generations, regardless of paternal or maternal, you are now a nuclear reference. That accounts for 90% of the references we have on hand right now.”
The panel concluded with members of DPAA sharing personal stories about families and the presentation of identification. Winbush shared, “I don’t use the word closure very often. These families have gone decades with only a photo, and in some cases nothing, of a relative who served honorably and never came home. Closure is not really the right word; we provide the final piece of the puzzle.”
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