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Medical Examiner Explains Identification Process

By Amaani Lyle DoD News, Defense Media Activity

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JOINT BASE PEARL HARBOR-HICKAM, Hawaii, May 29, 2015 — A glass-walled lab offers a brightly lit view of tables displaying hundreds of meticulously placed bone fragments and other human remains, aligned much like military formations.

The lab has a sterile, silent feel, yet the scientists and lab technicians studying and handling the remains don’t seem detached as much as they seem focused.

Navy Capt. (Dr.) Edward Reedy, the first medical examiner for the newly reorganized Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, said he and his team use multiple lines of evidence -- circumstances, forensic anthropology, odontology and more -- to effectively identify service members.

Their Reason for Working

“This is not just a job,” he said. “It’s not some place just to come to work for eight hours and then go home. This is literally their reason for working.”

The captain noted that lab technicians and scientists understand deeply the importance of providing answers to next of kin, if only through trace evidence, decades later. He likened walking into the lab to walking into a church.

“It’s sacred ground to people,” he said.

With World War II alone having left more than 73,000 unaccounted for, many of them in the Asia-Pacific region, the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency seeks to further enhance DNA testing techniques at the largest forensic anthropology facility and one of the largest pool of anthropologists in the world.

“We take a tremendous amount of pride in the scientific product and the ability to return missing American service people to their loved ones,” Reedy said. “We will periodically go back into our evidence and see if there’s any other material that has previously been unable to be identified because of its small size to be resubmitted for DNA.”

This process, the captain said, helps scientists try to identify even especially small bone fragments.

Less is More Through Technology

In the early 1990s, scientists had a minimum sample submission requirement of about 3 to 5 grams, with each gram about the size of a raisin.

“We’ve reduced that requirement now to less than 1 gram,” Reedy said. “So now 0.8 grams is the minimum sample size required for DNA extraction.”

The recovery process time frame can be daunting. It ranges from as few as six to nine months to decades, depending on the quality of the remains, which can vary depending on climate changes and the soil type where they were found. “For example, in Southeast Asia, the soil there is extremely acidic and will degrade the bone to the point where very little DNA is able to be extracted,” Reedy said.

Some remains, however, come with built-in protective covering, Reedy explained.

“Tooth enamel is the hardest substance in the human body, and it will literally survive decades,” Reedy said. The enamel protects the tooth material, which can significantly aid the identification process, he added.

It’s important to give a family answers about their missing relative, no matter how much time has passed, Reedy said.

Different Incarnations

Previously known as the Central Identification Laboratory, the facility has existed under several different incarnations since the end of World War II, but the science in earlier days was largely absent, Reedy explained.

“Back in the late ’40s and up until the early ’90s, there was no such thing as DNA technology,” he said. Scientists relied instead on anthropological techniques to identify recovered remains through race, stature or identifying marks or fractures, particularly on the bones, Reedy said.

But by about 1992, he added, advances in DNA technology occurred, allowing scientists to extract mitochondrial DNA from “ancient remains,” or skeletal material in which the decomposition process has already taken place.

Exponential Advances

“Mitochondrial DNA was the first technology method that was used to help in the identification process,” Reedy said.

Science overall has advanced exponentially, which has inherently yielded important partnerships with organizations such as the Armed Forces DNA Identification Laboratory at Dover Air Force Base, Delaware, Reedy noted.

“AFDIL has really been a pioneer in advancing DNA technology -- not just for this laboratory, but the entire world,” the captain said.

While AFDIL scientists developed the extraction technique of DNA from bone, DPAA pushed for the evolution, Reedy said. “We were the driving force to make those advancements, to progress the science to the point where we could reliably identify individuals,” he added.

AFDIL developed demineralization protocol that completely removed all the calcium from submitted material, which releases the DNA in a sample during testing. “So not only is mitochondrial DNA released, but autosomal, nuclear DNA,” Reedy said.

Efforts Benefit Diplomacy

Reedy described DPAA’s worldwide, humanitarian mission as one that, in exchange for access to a country, can bring first-class medical care to a remote area, sometimes to villages that may have been deprived of treatment for years.

“It’s another extension of the Department of Defense’s mission to provide the best care to the world,” Reedy said. “That’s an advantage the country’s government can provide to their people.”

Reedy, also a forensic pathologist, said taking care of someone who is deceased is a task he values and treats reverentially.

“This mission really dovetails well into my training,” he said. “It’s very personal for me.”

(Follow Amaani Lyle on Twitter: @LyleDoDNews)