Last year, two airmen killed in the Vietnam War were identified and buried with full military honors, 43 years after they died. These sorts of announcements come from the Defense Department dozens of times per year, but it would be a mistake to consider any of them routine.
On March 1, 1969, Maj. Wendell Keller and 1st Lt. Virgil Meroney were in an F-4 hit by enemy fire during a mission over Laos. "No parachutes were seen after the aircraft was hit," the DOD announcement read. "Heavy enemy presence in the area prevented recovery efforts."
That could have been the end of the story. Fortunately it was not.
The United States attempts to find and identify its fallen troops so they can be returned to their families and be properly buried. The Honolulu-based Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command (JPAC) leads these search, recovery, and identification efforts. Over the past decade, it has had hundreds of successes.
The Keller and Meroney case was extraordinary, which is typical. For 18 years, from 1994 to 2012, JPAC and Laotian teams investigated the case. They studied more than 40 eyewitness accounts, conducted several crash site excavations, and found and evaluated a fragment of a military ID card, aircraft wreckage, dental remains, and other evidence.
This relentless determination honors the sacrifices of the fallen, and the results speak for themselves. Every year, 80 previously lost troops (give or take a dozen) are identified. Investigating the cases requires the skills of a historian, detective, scientist, and a healthy dose of forensic anthropologist.
Cases typically begin with a lead. It could be a foreign eyewitness coming forward, the result of JPAC or private research, or just a lucky find.
If promising, JPAC will deploy a team to perform an initial site survey to answer a straightforward question: Does this lead justify coming back to perform a full excavation?
If the answer is yes, what often follows is a long wait. JPAC has 18 excavation teams operating worldwide.
There are 166 sites awaiting excavation in Southeast Asia alone.
Host-nation support is critical. The aid JPAC receives from Vietnam and North Korea highlights the differences.
The US is completely shut out of North Korea, where the remains of more than 5,000 American troops still lie. This was not always true: Teams had access from 1996 to 2005, but were then kicked out. Plans to bring the teams back fell apart last year.
Vietnam views the mission as a humanitarian effort and supports the US. JPAC has a permanent detachment in Hanoi, and Vietnamese support has allowed the US to scale back the American presence at some excavations—allowing JPAC to increase the number of sites it investigates in Vietnam.
With access, the next step is to deploy an excavation team. Recovery missions take a month or two, meticulously searching and sifting through the area with likely remains.
The easier cases have been solved, and IDs are getting "harder and harder in Southeast Asia," noted Air Force Maj. Gen. Kelly McKeague, JPAC commander. The soil around Vietnam is acidic, the landscape mountainous, the rains can be fierce, and the majority of the missing were lost in highly destructive aircraft crashes. Matching names and remains in Southeast Asia is a race against time.
When recoveries are successful, the still-unidentified remains are returned to the US in a formal ceremony. Only then can the lab ID process begin. Scientists study the recovered materials, and forensic anthropologists attempt to identify the remains. Dental remains can very effectively be matched with records, and in roughly three-quarters of the cases mitochondrial DNA is used to help with the identification.
No single source is enough, and all streams of evidence must agree.
The lab process can take less than three months or years. At any given time, there are up to 500 cases of possible human remains awaiting identification at JPAC's Central Identification Lab. Not all cases are solvable, McKeague noted.
Still, technical advances allow for new identifications. DNA testing came along after dental records.
More recently, scientists added the ability to restore and compare Korean War-era chest radiographs to the collarbones of disinterred troops.
Many Korean War remains relocated from Japan were preserved with formaldehyde. This damaged their DNA sequences, said JPAC forensic anthropologist Joseph Hefner. Investigators have a "good idea" who some unknown soldiers might be, but have until now lacked the ability to prove it, he said. If clavicles match the radiographs and the histories match up, these IDs can go relatively quickly.
More than 800 Korean War troops are still buried in "unknown" graves in the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific at Punchbowl.
McKeague also noted the potential to begin identifying unknowns among some 400 from USS Oklahoma, killed in the attack on Pearl Harbor. They are interred at Punchbowl.
So what to do about the backlog? The 2010 defense authorization act directed JPAC to dramatically expand its capacity. The command is to grow from an ability to perform 85 identifications per year to 200. A new headquarters and laboratory is under construction at JB Pearl Harbor-Hickam, and JPAC will open an annex at Offutt AFB, Neb.
One thing JPAC still does not have on its books is a museum. This is not the best fiscal environment in which to be asking for new things, but the nation would be served by a JPAC museum. Each one of the command's identifications could form the basis of a book or movie, and JPAC puts dozens of names to the fallen every year. These stories deserve to be seen, and awareness would lead to even more valuable tips.
There are still more than 83,000 Americans missing or unidentified from past conflicts. Many are lost in deep water and considered unrecoverable, but tens of thousands of others are still out there, waiting to be brought home, named, and returned to their families.