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Who Are You? DNA Registry Knows

By Douglas J. Gillert
American Forces Press Service

ROCKVILLE, Md., July 13, 1998 – Ten minutes by car from this Washington suburb is a deep-freeze warehouse containing foolproof identifications of more than a million soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines.

In the freezer reside the DNA "fingerprints" of nearly two-thirds of all active duty and reserve component service members. By the turn of the century, everyone in uniform will have a DNA card on file.

"Each card holds two drops of blood that form stains about the size of 50-cent pieces," said Air Force Dr. (Col.) Vernon Armbrustmacher. "That's enough to establish the DNA identification. We keep the specimens in vacuum- sealed envelopes with a desiccant to keep them dry, and freeze them at minus 20 degrees Celsius [minus 4 degrees Fahrenheit]."

The Armed Forces Institute of Pathology, at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, set up the DNA registry and repository shortly after Desert Storm. Defense leaders wanted a better means of identifying human remains than fingerprints and dental records.

"With battlefield casualties, bodies don't always produce fingerprints or dental information," said Armbrustmacher, chief deputy medical examiner for the Armed Forces DNA Identification Laboratory in Rockville. "Sometimes, we may have fingerprints and teeth with the body but can't find the records."

Every service member gets fingerprinted during induction. The FBI keeps the prints in a special file, but a third of them aren't usable, because they are smeared or incomplete in some way, according to Armbrustmacher. The FBI discards those prints. Neither are dental records fully reliable references, especially if the individual has no fillings.

Although it still uses fingerprints and dental records, DoD wanted a surer thing and settled on the emerging science of DNA fingerprinting.

The DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) found in the nucleus of every human cell contains unique genetic code -- it's who you are. Medical examiners can draw nuclear DNA samples from any part of the body. The only requirements are that the body or body part be reasonably "fresh," or at least well preserved. Even severely burned bodies often will yield DNA, Armbrustmacher said.

For older remains or those damaged by extreme heat, moisture or other environmental factors, researchers also can draw DNA from mitochondrion, which are tiny rod-like structures outside the cell nucleus. Most recently, mitochondrial DNA, or mtDNA, identified Air Force 1st Lt. Michael Blassie's remains as those in the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier of the Vietnam War at Arlington (Va.) National Cemetery.

"Mitochondrial DNA is remarkably preserved under adverse conditions and for longer periods of time," Armbrustmacher said. "You have many copies of mtDNA in a given cell. In a nuclear DNA, you basically have one copy, and it degrades rapidly [upon a person's death]."

Since the DNA registry began in June 1992, DoD has collected blood specimens from more than 1.2 million service members. The majority of the collections occur when recruits arrive at induction centers.

For members in uniform when collections began, a Defense Enrollment Eligibility Reporting System database "window" shows whether or not they've provided DNA samples. Their DEERS records are checked when they seek care at a military medical facility, and a specimen is collected if they haven't already provided one.

A third opportunity to collect DNA specimens comes during deployment queues. "Anyone in that group deploying, even if it's just for training, will be checked, and if necessary, sent to the clinic," the colonel said.

Specimens can be collected anytime blood is drawn for other tests, Armbrustmacher said. If DNA sampling is the only reason for drawing blood, most of the time lab technicians will use a finger stick like the ones used by blood banks.

The DoD DNA Registry collects specimens not only for service members but also for contract employees who may be sent to hostile areas. "We have talked about collecting specimens for family members, but the legalities are different," the colonel said. Instead, he suggested that interested family members contact local hospitals and commercial firms that advertise DNA reference services.

Although the decision to collect DNA samples has met with little resistance, Armbrustmacher said the registry gets questions about how blood specimens are used, for example, what medical information they provide.

"We base these identifications on the lengths of repeated sequences in the DNA that vary according to hereditary background. They have no medical worth," he said.

People also wonder whether the samples can be used in criminal cases. "The only way that they'd be released is if we had a court order," he said.

Use of the DoD DNA cards is so restricted, in fact, that the registry can only match them with physical remains.

"Sometimes, for example, a former service member will disappear," Armbrustmacher said. "Then, a body will be discovered and the family recalls that we have this DNA file and wants us to help identify the individual as perhaps their missing relative. We'll compare samples of the remains sent to us against our database. If there's no match, we say so, put the cards back and don't release any other identification information.

"This is a very simple program, solely for the identification of remains."

Normally, the registry will retain DNA cards for 50 years, the same length of time military medical records are kept on file. Once you complete your full service obligation, you also can request destruction of your DNA record. The required form and instructions are available from:

Armed Forces Repository of Specimen Samples for the Identification of Remains
16050 Industrial Drive, Suite 100
Gaithersburg, MD 20877.

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