POW/MIA Command Keeps Nation’s Promise to Troops, Families
By Fred W. Baker III
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Sept. 18, 2008 The remains of U.S. Navy Seaman Apprentice Thomas Hembree have laid in the same grave in the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Hawaii for more than six decades.
Robert Mann, deputy scientific director at the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command, talks about its Central Identification Laboratory, which is the world’s largest skeletal forensic lab and home to the largest concentration of forensic anthropologists in the world. Defense Dept. photo by Fred W. Baker III
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
Until six years ago, Hembree’s body rested in a grave under a headstone that read “Unknown.” He was a 17-year-old sailor from Kennewick, Wash., serving on the USS Curtiss in Pearl Harbor when he was killed in the Japanese attack there in 1941.
Eventually, the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command, or JPAC, based in Hawaii, was able to identify Hembree’s remains. His family chose to rebury him in the same place, still wrapped in the same simple, white U.S. Navy blanket.
Only now his headstone reads, “Seaman Apprentice Thomas Hembree.” Now his family knows where “Uncle Tommy” is.
“It’s just an incredible thing, said Robert Mann, the deputy scientific director at the JPAC. “The family knows where he is now. It’s the same resting spot, but now they know where he is.”
Mann worked Hembree’s case along with a host of others in the past 16 years. He is the longest-serving anthropologist at the lab and has gone on more than 40 missions in some of the most remote locations around the world. He’s reviewed hundreds of case files and pieced thousands of bones together. For Mann, each case is personal.
“I remember every single one of them,” Mann said. “When you hear a family say ‘Tommy,’ it’s not Thomas Hembree any more. It’s Tommy. It becomes very personal.”
One of a handful of offices within the Department of Defense charged with recovering missing servicemembers, the JPAC is based in the U.S. Pacific Command and conducts 80 percent of its missions there. The command has 350 military and civilians on staff. Its research and recovery teams deploy on about 70 missions per year around the world and team members average more than 100 days per year away from home.
The JPAC’s Central Identification Laboratory is the world’s largest skeletal forensic lab and is home to the largest concentration of forensic anthropologists in the world. There are 14 forensic anthropologists on permanent staff along with six archaeologists. They also have three forensic odontologists who review dental remains. It is the only skeletal laboratory accredited by the American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors, according to officials.
At the lab, the anthropologists work through the tedious task of piecing together the remains in hopes of working toward identifying recovered servicemembers. Some remains are severely degraded. Others come to the lab in boxes, mixed with other human remains, or even animal bones.
At the start of the identification process, each set of remains is laid on one of the lab’s 23 tables. The bones are placed in anatomical order, on their backs, hands up and facing the U.S. flag.
Some of the tables have nearly complete skeletons, while others have only a few bones or a handful of teeth. As tedious as the job is, and as abstract as some sets of remains appear, Mann said the reality of whose remains they are handling always sets in.
“As you start piecing them together you always remember they are a person,” Mann said. “It’s always a very personal thing, because that’s somebody’s brother or somebody’s father or somebody’s sister.”
The anthropologists sort through the bones, separating out pieces that are not human or those that may belong to another human. They chart out a biological profile, assessing the age at death, race, sex, stature, any injuries or trauma or unusual features.
During this stage, the anthropologists work blind, meaning they do not know who it is they are working to identify. This maintains the integrity of the process and keeps them from being biased toward making an identification.
Also at the lab, bone samples are taken and sent to the Armed Forces DNA Identification Lab in Rockville, Md.
The forensic odontologists work alongside the anthropologists analyzing teeth. A key player in the process, teeth offer the best means of positive identifications when compared to individual dental records because of unique characteristics such as fillings, crowns, extractions and partial dentures.
Once the forensic reports are complete, a comparison is made against the person they are trying to identify to see if the profile matches.
The JPAC is attempting to speed the time between the recovery and identification of remains by expanding its size. Congress has approved a $100 million, 140,000-square-foot facility that will triple its current lab size. Construction should begin in 2010. In the meantime, the Navy has given the lab 20,000 square feet of temporary space so that it can work the identification of more remains simultaneously.
The JPAC lab identifies about two Americans per week and each case can take months or years to complete. Historians there work on as many as 800 cases at a time, piecing information together like a puzzle.
“The reality is we go as quickly as we can, knowing all along that we have to be accurate,” Mann said. "Accuracy for what we do is 100 percent. It’s got to be. You can’t be a little accurate. You can’t be almost accurate. To be accurate means you’ve nailed it. And to be 100-percent accurate, it takes time.”
The biological profile is only a piece of the evidence that leads to identifying remains. Other factors include material evidence such as personal effects recovered at the site and DNA test results.
Mann acknowledged that the identification is a long and complicated process, but when families are notified, they can be assured they are getting the remains of their missing servicemember.
“When an identification is made and the remains go to the families, everybody here is absolutely certain that’s who it is. There’s no question anymore,” Mann said.
The most emotional part of the process is when family members come to the lab to receive the remains, Mann said. A special room is prepared for them to view the remains and they often bring photos. Receiving the remains brings closure to many who have had a piece of their family missing for years.
“To have their remains come home is the way that they can really finalize it,” Mann said. “We’re all used to going to funerals. We’re all used to going to the cemetery. And the end of that life is a funeral. I think it closes the loop in the entire circle of life.”
Mann has been with the lab nearly 17 years and has stomped through jungles and climbed mountains searching for missing troops’ remains.
As a kid, Mann wanted to be a race car driver or a rock-and-roll star. He dropped out of high school and earned his general equivalency degree while serving in the Navy. Eventually, he left the Navy and went to college where somebody “turned me on to bones,” he said.
His job as anthropologist at the JPAC is a dream-come-true, Mann said. It combines his love for bones, anthropology and a sense of greater purpose, he said.
“America has made a promise to servicemembers that if you go into harm’s way and don’t come back, somebody will come find you. Somebody will bring you back. That’s a solemn commitment to those who serve and to the families,” Mann said. “It’s the American way."
(This is the first in a series of AFPS articles on the Defense Department's efforts to account for missing servicemembers. AFPS reporter Fred W. Baker III talked with the leaders of the Defense Prisoner of War/Missing Personnel Office in Crystal City, Va., and the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command at Hickam Air Force Base, Hawaii, and others involved in the quest to bring closure to the families of those lost in the line of duty. Baker then travelled to Germany to the site of an excavation where a JPAC recovery team searched for the remains of a downed World War II fighter pilot.)