Army Seeks DNA Samples from Families of MIA Soldiers
By Kristen Noel
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, March 19, 2008 More than 6,300 families need to be located to collect DNA samples for the purpose of identifying missing soldiers from World War II and the wars in Korea and Vietnam, a U.S. Army official said yesterday.
The military maintains a database of mitochondrial DNA samples from family members of missing-in-action soldiers in the Armed Forces DNA Identification Lab, Army Lt. Col. Julius Smith, chief of past conflict repatriation for Army Casualty and Mortuary Affairs, said during a teleconference with online journalists and “bloggers.”
Smith explained that the DNA samples help the Army identify missing soldiers’ remains when they are uncovered, so they can be returned to the families.
The Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command continually sends anthropologists and forensic analysts to search past-conflict locations identified as potential recovery sites, provided the country where the conflict took place allows U.S. access.
Mitochondrial DNA is used for identification because it can be extracted from skeletal remains, which are the only kind of remains coming back from conflicts that happened more than 50 years ago, Linda Baublitz, chief of the Korean War section of the Past Conflict Repatriation Branch, explained.
The mitochondrial DNA source is passed only through the maternal line, Baublitz said, so the Army has to locate eligible donors from the mother’s side of the missing soldiers’ families.
The DNA samples are collected through an oral swab kit that is mailed to the donor, she said.
Baublitz also said the Army Past Conflict Repatriation Branch has launched an outreach program to try to locate more eligible donors from families of unaccounted-for soldiers from the Korean and Vietnam wars. Efforts to obtain family DNA samples for missing World War II soldiers are being handled on a case-by-case basis, Smith said.
The Army has a record of missing soldiers’ next of kin from personnel files, Smith said, but the lapsed time has made it difficult to track down current information on family members.
“It’s hard to keep in touch with (the families) now, because most of them … are now getting older,” Carolyn Floyd, the Southeast Asia section chief for the Past Conflict Repatriation Branch, said. “You’re getting out of the line of having parents or wives.”
Though contracted professional and amateur volunteer genealogists, as well as volunteers from veterans’ groups, have helped the Army track down thousands of missing soldiers’ families, Smith said, public input is needed to identify families with missing soldiers and to keep family records updated.
Smith explained that the Army provides lines of communication for the public to come forward with information. Families with unaccounted-for soldiers, or anyone who knows of a family with an unaccounted-for soldier, should contact the Past Conflict Repatriation Branch by calling 1-800-892-2490 or sending an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org, he said.
“The information you provide can be the difference in an identification being made and a soldier coming home,” Smith said.
(Kristen Noel works for the New Media branch of the American Forces Information Service.)