For the American military, new technology is revolutionizing all aspects of their missions. But not only in how they fight the enemy on the battlefield. It also has dramatically changed the work of JPAC — the US military's Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command at Hickam Air Force Base in Hawaii. This command is tasked with finding and identifying American soldiers, sailors, airmen, guardsmen and Marines who have fallen in action. Since World War II, they number over 80,000.
For years, JPAC search teams and scientists relied in eyewitness accounts, personal affects and dental records to identify the remains. Now, they have a powerful new tool: DNA.
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"We're using DNA in about 80 percent of the cases," said Dr. Thomas Holland, scientific director at JPAC. "Nowadays, they're getting DNA out of fragments the size of your thumbnail. It has revolutionized how we do business. We're going back to cases that were on the shelf when I got here, and had been on the shelf since the early 1980s and we're resolving those cases now because of DNA."
Said Holland, "It's amazing where we've come in a relatively short period of time."
For the families who have waited years for information about the fate of their loved ones, giving DNA samples can finally mean answers. Laverne Ransbottom's son, Freddie Joel, went missing during battle in Vietnam in 1968. For years, she and her family waited for any news about the fate of the eldest of three boys. The new technology gave her renewed hope.
"The first time that I ever heard about DNA, I was sitting there wide eyed," said Laverne in her home in Edmond, OK. "And I was absolutely blown away that this is happening. And I couldn't wait to fill out the paperwork and give (JPAC) my arm, you know? Take the blood, let's go!"
The remains of Freddie Joel were recovered in Vietnam in 2006 and confirmed by his personal affects, dental records, as well as DNA.
His mother Laverne had finally found some peace: "We're so happy he's now home."
JPAC identifies approximately 100 cases a year. That number could be substantially higher if more families with relatives who are missing in action from America's wars gave a DNA sample to JPAC.
"That is the biggest holdup that we have," says Dr. Holland.
"For the Vietnam War, it is very good," says laboratory director Dr. John Byrd about the number of family samples JPAC currently has on record. "A high percentage of the families of the missing have donated samples. With the Korean War, it has been a challenge for us over the last several years to get those family reference samples. But at this point we are proud to say approximately half of the families of the 8,100 missing have donated a DNA sample. But that still leaves approximately half that have not. And it is a big problem for us in our identification efforts."
One of the more memorable uses of DNA by JPAC occurred in 1998, when as Dr. Holland says, "We cracked one of the hardest puzzles out there." That was the identification of the remains placed in the Vietnam Tomb of the Unknowns in Arlington National Cemetery. With the advent of DNA testing, then-Secretary of Defense William Cohen approved the exhumation of these remains. On June 30 of that year, Secretary Cohen called the family of Lt. Michael Blassie and told them that their son — still listed as missing in action since 1972 — had been identified as the unknown soldier from Vietnam. On July 11, 1998, 26 years after he went missing, Lt. Blassie was laid to rest by his family.
With these new technological advances and the drive to have family members submit DNA samples, JPAC is committed to never having anymore "unknowns."
"We have a lot of faith in the development of science," says Dr. Byrd. "And, and we hope that we will be able to identify everyone who is in this laboratory at some point in the future."
For information on JPAC and how to give a DNA sample, please visit: www.jpac.pacom.mil
— Gregory Johnson is a producer for "War Stories With Oliver North"