JOINT BASE PEARL HARBOR-HICKAM, Hawaii -- *Editor’s note: This is the second article in a series on Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency*.
His eyes scan page after page, photo after photo, searching … searching … searching for one, just one document that can help. He has been at this for more than a year, attempting to find something that may not even be there for him to find, but he does not give up because that’s part of his mission.
The historian is about to scroll past a photo, but something catches his eye and he smiles. He found it. The man hits save, print, and emails a copy to himself for extra measure.
“That one photo the historian gave to us was the only piece of evidence that linked us to a spot, so we could send an investigative team and begin the excavation process,” said Meghan-Tomasita Cosgriff-Hernandez, Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency forensic anthropologist and scientific recovery expert.
“Fulfilling our nation’s promise” is the motto of the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, located at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Hawaii. Its mission – “To provide the fullest possible accounting for our missing personnel from past conflicts to their families and the nation.”
“Our process starts with historians and research analysts digging into National Archives, war records, interviewing witnesses, family members, fellow Sailors, Soldiers, and people in their units,” said U.S. Navy Rear Adm. Jon C. Kreitz, DPAA Deputy Director for Operations. “We are very active in getting into foreign archives where they might have crashed to see if they have any actionable leads or intelligence on our missing.”
If there is an actionable lead, the case is put onto an investigation list where a team will then go to investigate the site, conduct interviews of possible witnesses, survey the site and maybe even a little digging to see if they are in the right spot.
“The goal is to correlate the location with a lost incident,” Cosgriff-Hernandez said, who has been interested in anthropology since she was a child. “While on site, we typically look for something like a serial number and identification tag, and make maps of the area for the excavation team to use.”
Once the investigation team has surveyed the site and determined there is enough evidence to move forward, a recovery team is sent in to excavate the site – and hopefully recover the remains of someone’s loved one.
As the recovery team arrives on location, the anthropologist will lay out a grid and instruct the team on where to dig, in which direction and how far down. Some sites may have rock-hard, red, clay dirt that personnel have to dig through, being very careful not to possibly damage any evidence or remains. While other sites may have them in knee-deep sludge, shoveling it into buckets to then be put on a screen and sifted through.
“Everyone gets the opportunity to ‘get in the hole’ as we like to say and put a shovel in the dirt,” said U.S. Army Capt. Devin Niu, DPAA recovery team lead. “Some people like to stay in there longer and find that it’s what they like to do, some people are just really good at it.”
If you aren’t digging, you are screening, searching through the soil, or carrying buckets from the hole to the screening site, mentioned Niu. “We get eyes on every piece of material that comes through and everyone is fully engaged throughout the day.”
With teams varying in diversity – from a photographer to a mountaineer, or from a recovery non-commissioned officer to an explosive ordnance disposal technician – everyone has their role to fulfill, but it’s also about working together.
“It’s a team effort, not just from the Americans, but the locals and the host nation workers as well. We are all committed and we all do our part and get the mission accomplished,” Niu said, who has been on five DPAA missions as a team lead.
At a dig site, workers will dig in the designated area until one of two things happen; something is found or nothing is found. It may seem like obvious courses of action; however there are many variables that factor into the decision to either keep digging or move on to a new unit.
If something is found in the 4-by-4 square being dug, the digging process becomes much slower and more deliberate – digging until they reach a point where there is nothing being found anymore, they will then move on to another unit.
As the excavating is happening, other workers are filling buckets and taking it to be sifted through for anything smaller that may have been missed – like a tooth or dog tag. This process continues until they reach a point where they are no longer finding evidence at which time..
“Being part of the process of bringing people home is incredibly humbling and such an honorable mission. So being able to be part of that gives me a lot of pride and joy,” Niu said. “To honor the commitment we have for our fallen service members who have been unaccounted for is humbling. At the end of the day, it’s really about bringing people home who have gone overseas and been away for too long. If we can be part of that, it’s absolutely worthwhile.”
If suspected remains are uncovered at a dig site, the team will come home with the evidence in a dignified manner, conducting a repatriation ceremony before leaving the country they are in and another Honorable Carry ceremony once they land on U.S. soil.
"Ultimately, it's when you see all your hard work paying off and it actually means something," Cosgriff-Hernandez said. "It's tedious work, but seeing the final product makes everything worth it, and without a team, the locals and villagers who would help, nothing would ever get done."
The DPAA Laboratory is the largest and most diverse skeletal identification laboratory in the world. The Lab is staffed with forensic anthropologists, archaeologists and odontologists. DPAA scientists use a variety of techniques to establish the identification of unaccounted-for individuals, including analysis of skeletal remains and sampling DNA. DNA samples taken from bones and teeth are analyzed at the Armed Forces Medical Examiner System DNA Identification Laboratory in Dover, Del.
DPAA Forensic anthropologists are also responsible for the analysis of human remains and material evidence, such as military uniforms, personal affects and identification tags. All recovered skeletal remains are examined in order to produce a "biological profile." This profile includes sex, race, stature and age at death. Anthropologists may also analyze trauma caused at or near the time of death and pathological conditions of bone such as arthritis or previous healed conditions.
Dental remains are also extremely important to the identification process. An individual's dental records are often the best way to identify remains as they have unique individual characteristics and may contain surviving DNA. Ideally, the agency's forensic odontologists will have antemortem (before death) X-rays to use for comparison, but even handwritten charts and treatment notes can be critical to the research and identification process.
In addition to the factors previously mentioned, each separate line of evidence must be examined at the lab and correlated with all historical evidence.
The DPAA senior medical examiner is a board certified forensic pathologist whose role is to exercise scientific identification authority. In this role, the medical examiner reviews the scientific, historical, anthropological, dental, DNA, and other evidence associated with a missing service member, and if it meets established scientific and legal standards, will issue a medical examiner's report of identification.
"Seeing the final product makes everything worth it. Once you go through everything and you send it out for ID, I think that's when it really sinks in that everyone's hard work, from the very start of it, all the way to the end when you make an ID and know, 'Hey that guy is going home to his family.' That's what makes it worth it."
There are currently more than 82,000 Americans missing all over the world. Of those, DPAA is focused on the research, investigation, recovery and identification for approximately 34,000 cases the agency believes are possibly recoverable from World War II, the Korean War, the Cold War, the Vietnam War, Iraq, and other designated past conflicts.
“If we identify 200 a year, that will take you a couple very long lifetimes [to complete our mission], but if we do 350 to 400 identifications a year, then we’re down to one long lifetime,” Kreitz said. “We will keep pushing to do more, faster because it’s in our nature to get this mission done. We owe it to the families; we owe it to everybody that serves.”