Forensic Anthropology Graduate Students Research Skeletal Biology

Amelia Hessey and Rachel Canfield, JPAC

It is important for a student of any field to gain experience in that field before they enter into that profession. That is why, as graduate students of forensic anthropology, we wanted to get an internship at one of the most highly touted forensic anthropology laboratories in the country. That lab is called the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command (JPAC), and their main facility is located in Honolulu, Hawaii. The organization is based on Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam and its primary objective is to identify the remains of unidentified US war dead from World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War. Through joint efforts by the military and many civilian anthropologists, archaeologists, historians and dentists, JPAC strives to find, recover, and identify the remains of US servicemen “Until They Are Home”.

As interns, we were able to not only learn about the organization’s structure and the various procedures involved in the identification process, but also participated in several different stages of the process. At the first stage, the historians at JPAC work in two different divisions to either locate remains abroad or narrow down the list of potential identities of unidentified remains buried on US soil. One of their internship tasks was entering historical information into databases that contribute to the historians’ efforts. Once remains are brought back to JPAC, the forensic anthropologists and odontologists are responsible for making an identification of the remains. The authors were able to assist the anthropologists with their assessments of the remains and learn more about how they complete their portion of the process.

The overall mission of JPAC is to identify and repatriate the remains of US war dead, and in order to complete that mission, the organization functions in two broader sectors, the Command and the Central Identification Laboratory (CIL). On the Command side of the operation, more than 400 military personnel are responsible for organizing and supporting the recovery missions abroad, as well as working with US Military regulations surrounding the identification process of recovered remains. The CIL is made up of approximately 70 civilian personnel including forensic anthropologists, archaeologists, historians, and odontologists. The employees on this side are the ones responsible for locating, recovering, and identifying the remains of previously unidentified US war dead.

When skeletal remains are brought to the lab, whether from Punchbowl or from a foreign site, an entirely new phase of analysis begins to meet the goal identifying the remains. Biological anthropologists specializing in forensic anthropology are responsible for analyzing skeletal remains and using scientific methods to determine the identity of the remains. The goal of the forensic anthropologists working at CIL is to make a match between any unique portion of a missing soldier’s records and the recovered skeletal remains, which is referred to as making a positive identification of the remains. A positive identification means there is no doubt whatsoever that the remains belong to a specific individual, and in the context of JPAC’s mission, the remains can then be returned to family members or be given a more final burial rite.

The remains are first cleaned by removing any soft tissue, dirt, or other substances (e.g. formaldehyde powder) to leave only clean bones for the forensic anthropologists to analyze. For instance, the Punchbowl cases that were received from Japan were covered in some sort of substance similar to a formaldehyde powder that had to be rinsed from the remains before analysis. Once the remains are clean enough to be examined thoroughly, the set of remains associated with a single individual is inventoried. This inventory is used to both make sure the bones do not belong to more than one individual and to see if recovering more remains from that individual is at all possible.
The next step of analyzing the remains involves developing what is known as the biological profile. The biological profile is made up of estimations of age, sex, ancestry, stature, and trauma. These characteristics act as puzzle pieces that should fit together to identify the individual represented by the remains. This is the main function of the anthropologist within the laboratory setting.
Interns, like the authors, are often involved in these first stages of laboratory work.

JPAC also works on a consultation basis for forensic cases that are submitted by local law enforcement, as well as outside academics, and on other related professional projects. Sometimes local investigators require assistance from the highly trained forensic anthropologists at JPAC, but most importantly having ASCLAD certification makes JPAC a highly esteemed laboratory to use for forensic cases. Chain of custody, a log of who and when is in contact with the remains and any personal artifacts, which is maintained and monitored by the high security for all the facilities is one example of how this benefits a forensic setting. While outside casework does not occur with any regularity, JPAC anthropologists are still familiar with the procedure of working with outside cases. However, consultation work does not take priority over the main mission of JPAC.  During this past summer the authors were asked to assist forensic anthropologists that took on outside forensic casework from colleagues, involving a large number of unidentified human remains. With these consult cases, a biological profile was formed based on very similar analyses used in typical JPAC cases. The only difference in methodology stemmed from methods that were more appropriate for the context of those remains, such as those tested on different population groups.

During our internship at JPAC we had the opportunity to participate in multiple stages of the identification process. We both became involved in parts of the historical data compilation project and the analyses of the Punchbowl cases, as well as getting to work on some of the consult cases being worked on at the time. Rachel was able to get involved in a side project with Dr. Hefner, as well as spend a bit more time refining her skills with certain methods of assessing the biological profile. Amelia was also able to assist Hugh Tuller in his side research.

We were able to experience working within two of the different sectors of JPAC, working towards the goal of identifying remains. Working with the historians allowed us to develop a more complete understanding of the overall operations of JPAC and see what takes place before the bones are even examined by the anthropologists. Our time spent with the forensic anthropologists was also very valuable as we learned how non-academic practitioners work, which is rather different from academic practitioners. Working with multiple individuals gave us insight into the different approaches that can be taken while working on cases. Reflecting on our internship, we now understand how multifaceted these projects are, with employees from many different fields of expertise working together. This moves away from the more isolated academic forensic anthropologist, who would not necessarily have the benefit of so many resources on hand.

Seventy years after the birth of this organization, JPAC has stayed true to its original mission to reunite the remains of missing soldiers with their identities and their loved ones. The incorporation of many different professionals, interns, and volunteers is what gives hope to the families that JPAC will work diligently “Until They Are Home”. To be a part of that mission, even in the small capacity of an intern, is a great honor, not only to serve the mission, but to work alongside some of the field’s leading forensic anthropologists.

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