There are thousands of American service personnel missing from World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War and the Cold War. About 75 percent of those are in the Indo-Pacific region.
The Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency estimates that almost 39,000 are recoverable, with the others being mostly deep, at-sea losses.
That agency is tasked with providing the fullest possible accounting for missing personnel from past conflicts to their families and the nation. The DPAA continually revises its missing count as more are found, Air Force Staff Sgt. Jonathan McElderry, a DPAA forensic photographer, said.
Each year, DPAA conducts investigation-and-recovery team missions throughout the world to pinpoint last known locations of missing Americans and to attempt to excavate their remains, he said, adding that these missions are often being done simultaneously at different parts of the globe.
Recovery teams use standard field archaeology methods in the excavation as directed by the on-site anthropologist. At a recovery site, the forensic anthropologist, who’s also referred to as the recovery leader, directs the excavation much like a detective overseeing a crime scene, he said.
Other members of the team include a team leader, team sergeant, linguist, medic, life support technician, communications technician, forensic photographer, explosive ordnance disposal technician, and mortuary affairs specialists. Some teams include a mountaineer if the potential excavation area is on a mountainside, he said.
The number of personnel sent out to each country can vary from about 10 to more than 100. McElderry said they include service members from all branches of the military, as well as civilians.
Standard recovery missions last six to eight weeks, depending on the location and recovery methods used.
Recovery sites can be as small as a few meters for individual burials to areas larger than the size of a football field for aircraft crashes, he said.
McElderry said each mission is unique, but there are certain processes each recovery has in common. The initial analysis occurs at the site, and the material is then brought back to the lab for additional examination.
At sea and in other bodies of water, divers search for remains.
So far, McElderry has been on three recovery missions, all in Vietnam, including a trip from May to July. He said recovery teams operated concurrently off the coast of Vietnam, as well as on land. His work was all done on land.
McElderry said his most recent mission was different from other two due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Operations were adjusted to allow for a 21-day quarantine in Vietnam, and there were various COVID-19 mitigation procedures and personal protective equipment on site.
Besides the pandemic, another challenge was working in rugged mountains, he said. That involved hauling along safety equipment, such as ropes, harnesses, helmets and gloves. A professional mountaineer supervised the climbing and safety procedures.
Another challenge was the extreme heat and humidity and remote location, he said, mentioning that temperatures were consistently above 100 degrees Fahrenheit.
“Despite these challenges, what kept me focused throughout the mission was just remembering why I was out there and how we could help the family members find a sense of closure for their loved ones who went missing. These service members gave the ultimate sacrifice for our country, so it’s up to us to do our best to bring them home,” he said.
Once the excavation is done, the remains undergo analysis and identification at the DPAA laboratories at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Hawaii, and at Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska. They are the largest and most diverse skeletal identification laboratories in the world and are staffed by anthropologists, archaeologists and forensic odontologists who examine dental remains, according to the DPAA.
The lab uses mitochondrial DNA in about three-quarters of its cases. Samples taken from bones and teeth are analyzed at the Armed Forces DNA Identification Laboratory at Dover Air Force Base, Delaware, to determine the genetic sequence.
This sequence is compared with sequences from family reference samples provided by living individuals who are maternally related to the unidentified American. These family reference samples are collected, as needed, by the casualty and mortuary offices. Generally, all persons of the same maternal line have the same mtDNA sequences.
Since these sequences are rare but not unique within the general population, they cannot stand alone as evidence for identification. In addition to the factors previously mentioned, each separate line of evidence must be examined at the lab and correlated with all historical evidence. All reports undergo a thorough peer review process that includes an external review by independent experts.
“Working here at DPAA is so rewarding. Not only is this a very humbling experience, but it also gives me a great sense of honor to serve in the military. I couldn’t be more grateful to support such an impactful mission,” McElderry said.