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Army Veteran Serves in MIA Recovery Missions as DHA Volunteer

Nearly 80 years after being declared missing in action during World War II, Army Air Forces Staff Sgt. Henry L. Stevens of Monroe, Alabama, has been identified. 

Stevens was accounted for on Sept. 15, 2023, according to the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, following several recovery missions in Belgium by a team of volunteers with the University of Wisconsin Missing in Action Recovery and Identification Project and the DPAA. 

A  black and white photo of an airman sits in a room with other military mementos.
Airman's Mementos
A photo of Army Air Forces Staff Sgt. Henry L. Stevens. Michael MacLaren, an employee with the Defense Health Agency and Army veteran, helped recover Stevens' remains.
Photo By: Courtesy photo
VIRIN: 240408-O-VO263-6422A

A Defense Health Agency employee and Army veteran who volunteers to help find missing U.S. military personnel from past conflicts and wars helped recover Stevens. 

Michael MacLaren, DHA liaison officer with U.S. Special Operations Command, said he feels that volunteering on these missions is another way to serve after retiring from the Army. 

"I think it is important to provide closure for the families of missing service members," MacLaren said. "It is very easy for me to put my family in their place. Donation of my time and effort is the least I can do for these surviving family members." 

DHA Employee Volunteers for Recovery Missions 

MacLaren volunteers with the University of Wisconsin Missing in Action Recovery and Identification Project, one of the organizations responsible for finding the remains of Stevens. 

The main mission of the project is to recover missing U.S. military personnel from past global conflicts and help bring closure to the families of the missing. 

"It is a mission I have always been interested in and supported from my former position at the U.S. Special Operations Command," said MacLaren. "I see it as another form of service. It allows me to continue contributing to the military and their families." 

MacLaren said he first got involved when his brother-in-law, Charles Konsitzke, the founder of the University of Wisconsin Missing in Action Recovery and Identification Project, asked him if he would be interested after he retired from the Army in 2018. 

"He was interested in having more veterans participate with the project and felt I could provide a different perspective as most of the team members are UW employees and students, of which very few are veterans," said MacLaren. 

Since joining, MacLaren has been on three trips to two different sites, he said. First was the recovery of Army Air Force 2nd Lt. Walter B. Stone, near Quercamps, France, in summer 2018. His second and third trips were the summers of 2022 and 2023 as part of the on-site team in Belgium working to recover Stevens' remains. 

In 1944, Stevens was assigned to the 557th Bombardment Squadron, 387th Bombardment Group, Ninth Air Force, in the European theater of operations. On Dec. 23, he was a crewmember aboard a B-26F "Marauder" aircraft, nicknamed Shirley D, which was downed by enemy fire over Germany. According to witnesses, the Shirley D took damage to the right engine, resulting in a fire which forced crewmembers to bail out. Survivors watched the craft crash near Winville, Belgium, with several service members, including Stevens, still onboard. 

A group of airmen pose for a picture in front of an airplane.
Marauder Crew
The crew of the B-26F Marauder aircraft, nicknamed Shirley D, which was downed by enemy fire over Germany in December 1944.
Photo By: Courtesy photo
VIRIN: 240402-O-AY809-4592A

Belgian residents were able to recover remains from the crash site and turned them over to American forces operating in the area. The American Graves Registration Service personnel initially identified the pilot, while the other set of remains remained unknown. By Dec. 26, 1944, everyone from the aircraft had been identified and accounted for except for Stevens, and he was declared non-recoverable. 

Researchers from the project and DPAA initially went to the crash site in 2019. 

"Possible bone material was recovered all three years the team worked the site," said MacLaren. He noted that the team isn't usually notified from which mission that the material found was the one identified as belonging to the missing service member. 

He uses his military experience and knowledge to help with recovery missions. 

"These missions require moving and examining significant amounts of earth, and I participated in both events," said MacLaren. "Based on my experience, I am also able to provide some background and perspective on the military and some insight into the Department of Defense." 

He noted that about 16-18 personnel are usually involved on a research and recovery mission, including the team leader, lead archeologist, field physician, archeologists, graduate students, veterans and interpreters. 

"When potential bone material is discovered, it is examined and verified by the lead archeologist, cataloged, packaged and forwarded to DPAA for testing," he said. 

He said finding anything at all at mission sites is exciting, and when something is found that isn't wreckage but possible remains — it's noteworthy. 

"Whenever we find something and it pans out, it is very meaningful," said MacLaren. "This is why we do this." 

Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency Accounts for the Missing 

The DPAA's mission is to provide the fullest possible accounting for missing U.S. personnel from past conflicts to their families and the nation. They search for missing personnel from World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the Cold War, the Gulf Wars and other recent conflicts. 

They coordinate with hundreds of countries and municipalities worldwide on their research and operational missions. 

As of April 5, 2024, there are more than 81,000 Americans still missing from past conflicts, according to the DPAA. Approximately 75% of those losses are in the Indo-Pacific region, and over 41,000 of the missing are presumed lost at sea. 

Stevens' remains were identified using anthropological analysis performed by DPAA scientists and mitochondrial and autosomal DNA analyses performed by the Armed Forces Medical Examiner System, which falls under the DHA umbrella. 

The DPAA works with the University of Wisconsin project in missions and coordinates the responsibility of recovery and identification with the AFMES. 

Armed Forces Medical Examiner System Helps to Identify the Unknown 

Following a request by the DPAA, the Armed Forces DNA Identification Laboratory made the DNA match positively identifying the remains of Stevens, according to Dr. Timothy McMahon, director of DOD DNA operations. 

The laboratory is responsible for DNA testing of all remains submitted by the DPAA, according to McMahon. 

"The AFMES is the only federal medical examiner system," said McMahon. "The medical examiner is authorized to determine cause and manner of death and identification of anyone who dies on federal exclusive land as well as assisting the DPAA with providing a scientific finding of identification for all service members." 

The process of identifying the remains of service members begins with the DPAA sending skeletal remains to AFDIL for forensic DNA analysis. 

Working with the service casualty offices, AFMES will help to identify appropriate family reference candidates and collect DNA swabs from these individuals, explained McMahon. DNA is extracted and analyzed, and the resulting DNA profiles are entered into the family reference database. Once an unknown human remain sample is sent to and processed by AFDIL, the resulting DNA profile is searched against the family reference database and matches are reported to the DPAA. 

"From the start of extraction to the DNA comparison, it takes AFDIL 55-60 working days, to identify remains," said McMahon. "That sounds like a lot, but all tests are done in duplicate. There is a 100% initial review by a scientist not associated with the case, then there is a second 100% review of the case by a different scientist, and then there is an administrative review prior to reporting the results to the DPAA." 

Hundreds Present for Stevens' Internment, Including Daughter 

Stevens' remains were interred on March 8, 2024, at the Florida National Cemetery in Bushnell, Florida. Among those in attendance was his daughter, Daisy Stevens Franklin, who was only 18 months old when he was killed in action. 

MacLaren said that though Stevens' daughter did not get a chance to really know him, she said that she never thought that she would see this day with her family. 

MacLaren, along with other members of the recovery team were in attendance. He said that members of the local community and various veteran organizations also attended to show their respect. 

"I am humbled," MacLaren said about being at the service. "When I found out he was going to be interred close-by, I knew I wanted to go. It was an honor to be there." 

Stevens' name is recorded on the Tablets of the Missing at the Ardennes American Cemetery, an American Battle Monuments Commission site in Neupré, Belgium, along with others still missing from World War II. A rosette will be placed next to his name to indicate he has been accounted for. 

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