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Four Ways to Really Fix the Pentagon’s Effort to ID the Missing

Changes must go beyond bureaucracy to update the scientific approach and embrace outside help.

Last week, we wrote about the Pentagon’s floundering efforts to find and identify the 83,000 service members missing from past conflicts - of which the military ID’d just 60 last year.  As our story laid out, the mission has been hampered by outdated scientific methods, a lack of public outreach and cumbersome bureaucracy.

Lawmakers and Pentagon leadership have zeroed on the overlapping agencies and lack of clear chain of command in the mission. Last month, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel ordered a review of how the military manages the effort.

But streamlining the structure won’t be enough, many outside experts say. Here are four ideas to really fix the effort.

Overhaul use of DNA

The main agency involved is the Joint Prisoner of War/Missing in Action Accounting Command, which runs the forensics laboratory used to identify the remains of the missing. J-PAC starts with historical and medical records first and leaves DNA last.

That’s backwards from all other modern day efforts to identify the missing, which begin the process with DNA and let that powerful tool lead the process. Using DNA as the primary identification method was used in Argentina after the dirty war, in the Balkans after the genocide there, and here in the United States after 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina.

If changes don’t bring the methods up to date with the latest forensics techniques, Ed Huffine, a DNA expert, said, “the system will still fail.”

Another issue is the type of DNA J-PAC uses.

It relies on mitochondrial DNA, which is passed down from the mother and is consistent along the maternal line for generations. A grandmother shares the same mitochondrial DNA with her daughter and her daughter’s children, for example.

But other scientists involved in identifying the missing stopped using maternal DNA almost twenty years ago. Instead, in places like Argentina and Bosnia, scientists use nuclear DNA, which can be compared to the mother, father, children and siblings of the person to make a positive ID. It’s also faster and cheaper to process than mitochondrial DNA.

In Bosnia, they would extract DNA from a bone on a Monday, sequence the DNA on a Tuesday and do any necessary troubleshooting by the end of the week, said Huffine, who helped designed the effort in Bosnia. For the Pentagon, similar DNA processing often take months. 

Since J-PAC works decades-old cases, scientists would face times when nuclear DNA samples from immediate family might not be available. In those cases J-PAC must rely on maternal DNA, using, for example, the DNA from a missing soldier’s niece. But here too, experts say, J-PAC could make better use of DNA.

J-PAC won’t rely on maternal DNA to make an ID, because it can be shared across different families. However, even the most common mitochondrial DNA is only shared by 5 percent of the population - meaning J-PAC could be 95 percent sure of the person’s identity when using it, according to Joshua Hyman of the University of Wisconsin. He and others argue that DNA is the strongest and fastest place to start an ID, regardless of the type, rather than leaving it last in the equation.

Family samples of maternal DNA could also be combined with samples of paternal DNA to make a match. J-PAC should request all the different types of DNA to be sequenced at once.

Do a national, high-profile outreach campaign to collect needed DNA samples for WWII - before it’s too late.

Siblings are among the best DNA matches for WWII missing service members, especially if the MIAs had no children. That generation is dying. The Pentagon could enlist the help of Hollywood - Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg have been suggested - to publicize a massive effort to collect as many DNA reference samples from family of the missing. TV ads, social media, radio and YouTube videos and more could all be used to solicit participation. The U.S. government has actually given Argentina millions of dollars in grants to do just that.

The more samples for a missing service member are on hand the easier it is to make a match.

“Given that close relatives of WWII soldiers are older, how long are we going to wait to collect their DNA? They represent the best opportunity to find a match,” Hyman said. “Are we just waiting for the issue to go away, assuming that when they die there will be no one left that cares enough to cause a fuss?”

Do massive disinterments of 9,400 unknown servicemembers to try to identify with DNA

More than 9,400 service members from WWII and the Korean War are buried as “unknowns” in American cemeteries around the world because of the limitations of science at the time.  But many of them could now likely be identified if the Pentagon exhumed the remains for DNA testing.

“Seems to me like the logical approach,” Clyde Snow, a world-renowned forensic anthropologist said.

With the copious records the U.S. military has, the unknowns could be broken down into like groups from theater, battle or event, and dug up accordingly to keep it manageable.

In order to be both efficient and respectful of the remains, scientists say the bodies could be left in place and tested using a mobile DNA unit and then housed in a mausoleum while DNA cross referencing is done.

Embrace outside help

Experts say about 45,000 MIAs are recoverable, likely an overwhelming task for any one organization or agency. So some people formerly involved in the effort have suggested enlisting universities, historical organizations, military unit associations, veterans and other interested groups.

At J-PAC’s sister agency, the Defense Prisoner of War/Missing Personnel Office, there was an idea floated of building regional centers that could be responsible for researching and building cases on the missing from their area. That would tap into a pool of people who care deeply about those who are missing, building “a cadre of people who are focused towards the mission in manageable chunks,” said Navy Commander Renee Richardson, formerly of DPMO.

“We’d be leveraging all the things universities already do,” said Richardson. “If you go to a university, let’s say Harvard, and tell them, ‘from your class of ‘37, you still have three people missing from WWII.’”

This would require much more openness with records and findings than the Pentagon has been willing to share in the past, Richardson said.

In the search for remains - the hardest task of the mission - locals can often help. There are Belgians, for example, who live near the Battle of the Bulge and have long worked to find missing American soldiers. They have the advantage of speaking the native language and being a part of the community, but are often shunned by the Pentagon.

Anthropologists have also suggested outsourcing overseas archaeological operations for continuity and efficiency. Rather than flying scientists from Hawaii to spend a few weeks looking for remains in, say, Papua New Guinea, there could be a team stationed there. Their work would be continuous rather than filled with the time lags of sometimes years between digs that hinders J-PAC’s efforts.

This series is in partnership with NPR. See their online presentation of our original joint investigation.

Correction, Mar. 14, 2014: We mistakenly published a non-final draft of this article, and have since replaced that copy in its entirety with what you see on this page. The differences were entirely stylistic and there were no changes of fact.

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