CSI-type work to recover & identify MIA American troops

By Teri Okita – bio | email

JOINT BASE PEARL HARBOR-HICKAM (HawaiiNewsNow) – CSI-type work is happening right here in Honolulu. The Joint POW-MIA Accounting Command - or JPAC - recently received tens of millions of dollars to expand its facility and redouble efforts to help recover the remains of some 83 thousand servicemembers. The vast majority of MIA have been missing since World War II. JPAC's work starts in the faraway fields of past conflicts and ends at the Central Identification Laboratory - or CIL - at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam.

The work is dirty, tedious, and oftentimes, backbreaking. 18 recovery teams travel around the world -across jungles, swamps, mountains, and cliffs - to unearth the remains of American servicemembers lost in WWII, the Korean war, and the Vietnam war.

Recovery team leader Capt. Peter Casterline says, "We stay there between 30 and 45 days, performing excavation operations - which is archaeology. It's digging, and we have experts in the field of anthropology with us."

They arrive at these sites after exhaustive research that includes eyewitness accounts, personnel records, photos, maps - anything that can help their mission. Recovery sites range from a few meters to areas larger than a football field, and every bit of soil is sifted, by hand, to find even the smallest pieces of remains or artifacts.

They then go to CIL in Honolulu – where scientists analyze the bones and sample specific DNA. "From the remains, we'll do estimations and assessments of age, race, sex and stature," says Derek Benedix, a CIL forensic anthropologist. "We'll also look for trauma that occurred."

On average, the lab identifies seven servicemembers a month, but it can sometimes take years. About 1,800 formerly-MIA servicemembers have been identified since this work began back in the 1970's. There are no cold cases, no unsolved cases at CIL. If they can't make an i.d., they'll keep the remains secured until new science or new technology can help them.

Congress recently appropriated 63 million dollars for JPAC to build a state-of-the-art lab in Hawaii by July 2013, as well as hire more teammembers."To actually find somebody that, you know, this could be our pilot or a gunner or a soldier that, he's going to get reunited with his family, it's a great feeling," explains Casterline.

Benedix adds, "America's promise of making sure that everyone comes home and we leave no one behind, that hits home for a lot of people." From field to lab, the added resources will only strengthen their resolve, and this year, JPAC is manning 33 missions in 14 countries.

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