Until they are home: Mortuary affairs specialist help bring Americans home

  • Published
  • By Christin Michaud
  • Air Force Mortuary Affairs Office Public Affairs
She dials a number and the phone begins to ring. An unsuspecting person is on the other side.

Senior Master Sgt. Mary Mullen, who has worked as a telemarketer in her civilian career, is used to making cold calls. This time though, the Reservist, deployed to the Air Force Mortuary Affairs Operations Center isn't selling anything. She's calling to obtain something that could give the recipient of the call closure.

Sergeant Mullen, Doug Lester and Alan Cronin, AFMAO mortuary affairs specialists with the technical and identification branch, have called more than 2,150 family members in an effort to obtain DNA samples to help identify the remains of lost loved ones.

In a repatriation effort, DNA samples are being requested from certain family members of individuals missing in action from the Korean War, Vietnam Conflict and the Cold War.

There are 1,533 Air Force members missing in action from these conflicts. The technical and ID branch members have a mission of trying to make contact with family members to obtain mitochondrial DNA from families of lost servicemembers who don't have a family reference sample on file with the Armed Forces DNA Identification Lab in Rockville, Md.
Mitochondrial DNA is used for identification because it can be extracted from skeletal remains. It is different from nuclear DNA in that it is only transferred maternally, which means donors are limited to the mother's side of the missing Airman' s family.

Air Force officials have contracted with professional genealogists to help locate these family members. Once a connection is established, the information is passed to the staff here who contacts family members directly.

There are 611 unaccounted Airmen who are still without a family reference.

The staff members in the technical and ID branch began making contact with families of those 611 Airmen in November 2009 and to date have closed 347 of those cases by obtaining two mitochondrial DNA samples per family.

Two different samples are required for it to be considered successful, Mr. Cronin said.

This can be one of the challenges, because not only does his team need to make contact with at least two different family members, but they need those individuals to agree to provide DNA samples.

Some families don't have the ability to provide samples because there may not be living relatives from the mother's side, or they may have emigrated from another country and have returned, making them harder to locate.

Other families who have lost an Airman with a slim chance of recovery may not participate because they believe their loved one will never be found. A sample from these families could help officials get one step closer to identifying other fallen servicemembers, because by comparing DNA, it enables them to exclude that the remains don't belong to a certain individual.

"It gives an opportunity for another person to be identified," Mr. Cronin said.

DNA is only one segment of the identification process. Circumstances and other forensic evidence are used to make a match, or exclude other individuals from skeletal remains.
Although the mitochondrial DNA can't be used exclusively for identification, it is a valuable forensic tool in support of identifying remains.

The technical and ID branch staff members work directly with the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command in an effort to account for Americans lost during past conflicts.

JPAC was created by combining the U.S. Army Central Identification Laboratory and Joint Task Force-Full Accounting.

The mission is to investigate leads and recover and identify Americans who were killed in action, but were never brought home.

The process begins with in-depth research by JPAC historians who, with the help of analysts, gather and analyze information for a loss incident case file.
If through research, JPAC officials are able to pinpoint a possible location, an investigative team deploys to the site for approximately 35 days to interview potential witnesses, conduct on-site reconnaissance and survey terrain. If the investigative team finds enough evidence at the site, a team will be sent to begin recovery.

Anthropologists, forensic analysts and others make up the team from JPAC to excavate potential recovery sites for evidence. Each team, on average, comprises 10 to14 specialists including a team sergeant, linguist, medic, life support technicians, forensic photographer, communications specialists and an explosive ordnance disposal technician.

The process of recovery and identification can take years to complete.

The best part of being involved in the process is being able to see closure, said Mr. Cronin.
"Its bitter sweet opening the wounds again, but then families finally have closure," he said.

The remains of 10 fallen Airmen were returned to their families in 2009. So far this year, four have been returned.

Mr. Cronin recently travelled to Indiana for the funeral of a repatriated Airman. Although the flight with the remains was delayed for four hours, more than 20 state troopers were waiting in Indianapolis, as well as numerous Patriot Guard members to escort the remains an additional 127 miles to the Fort Wayne, Ind., area for the funeral.

"Folks waited," Mr. Cronin said. "Like a procession, people were standing in little towns along the way. The community lost somebody."

Community members gathered to show their support and recognize an American killed in action years ago, who was finally on his way home.
People lined the streets in Columbia City, Ind., to honor Tech. Sgt. Roy DeWitt Prater, on the way to his final resting place.

Moments like that, and returning the remains to the family for proper burial are the end goal.

"That's why we go talk to the families," Mr. Cronin said. "That's why JPAC excavates sites," he said. "It's a small part, but it's the end of the process."

His team continues to dial phone numbers and make more calls as part of the process. It's a job he and the others are honored to take part in -- until they are all home.

For more information about the program or to donate DNA, call (800) 531-5803.