The Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, the DPAA, is a component of the Department of Defense, whose mission is to account for service members who gave their lives in service to the United States. I was an intern at the DPAA laboratory on Joint Base Pearl Harbor Hickam in Honolulu, Hawaii. The DPAA is composed of both civilian and military members working in conjunction to repatriate the missing and unidentified. The military component participates in the contact with family members of the unidentified, the recovery of remains, management and leadership duties, and in certain roles of analysis as medical examiners and forensic odontologists, which is forensic dentistry. The civilian component is composed of recovery specialists, archaeologists, forensic anthropologists, forensic odontologists, logistics and management. There is overlap between the military and civilian roles in day to day activity at the lab. The DPAA is tasked with the identification and repatriation of the approximately 82,000 missing Americans, of which 41,000 are presumed lost at sea. Within this multi-faceted operation, I interned with the forensic anthropology analysts.
Chain of custody is vital to the DPAA as a means of maintaining organization and to ensure the uniform and fullest possible accounting for unidentified servicemembers and their families. There are standard operating procedures, SOPs, which everyone in the lab are required to follow. Prior to the internship, portions of the SOP manual were distributed and each intern was tested for competency to ensure quality and uniform work. Many people and processes are involved in the identification of each individual, which calls for the application of a uniform and detailed chain of custody system. One situation where the chain of custody is applied is that of disinterments. Disinterments are the recovery of remains once believed to be unidentifiable from their burial place. The remains are disinterred after research has been compiled on the likelihood of identification with today’s scientific methods. The remains are disinterred from the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, commonly referred to as Punch Bowl. There is a short disinterment ceremony performed at the gravesite and the caskets are draped in an American flag. The caskets arrive at the DPAA lab and are photographed after the flags are removed. The disinterment process involves both military and civilian personnel. The military aid in the disinterment of remains from the cemetery and the removal of the materials after remains have been removed from the casket. The civilian analysts open the caskets and photograph the contents before removal. Caskets arrive in varying conditions. Remains may be from WWII and others from more recent conflicts such as the Korean War. Burial length and location may affect the condition of the iron casket. The remains buried as unidentified were bundled and interred uniformly in wool blankets. Once photographed, the remains are removed and sent to the lab for cleaning. Once cleaned and processed, the remains enter the first stage of analysis by an anthropologist. The remains will go through multiple analyses in order to obtain a confirmed identification. Analyses include odontology reports, forensic anthropology reports, DNA sampling, and other analytical means providing multiple arguments for identification.
The chain of custody follows through every step of the identification process, including the ceremonies involved. Military tradition is intertwined with the work of the DPAA, and is the centerpiece of ceremonies related to repatriation. I had multiple opportunities to take place in solemn ceremonies resulting from the hard work and success of the DPAA. One such ceremony was the Honorable Carry from Tarawa Atoll. The Battle of Tarawa occurred in the Pacific Theater during WWII, and resulted in a great loss of marines. Many men were buried where they fell or in large lines of graves. Some burials were missed in the initial recovery efforts made after the war. The remains left on Tarawa were recovered during my internship and brought back to the United States in an Honorable Carry ceremony. Twenty-two caskets arrived to Hickam Air Field from Tarawa. The ceremony involved the removal of caskets from the plane, four at a time, six marines to each casket. The caskets were carried and placed in the hangar, saluted, and the marines returned to the C-17 aircraft for the remaining caskets. The removal of all twenty-two caskets from the aircraft marked the first time back on American soil for the servicemembers within them who lost their lives in WWII. Prayers were said for the servicemembers and their families, as their journey to identification was just beginning. Taps played for remembrance of the servicemembers and their sacrifice. After the ceremony, the caskets were transported to the DPAA lab for remains processing and analysis. Another ceremony I had the opportunity to take part in was a chain of custody release ceremony. A chain of custody ceremony occurs when there is an identification made by the DPAA and the remains are released from the lab. The remains of the identified servicemember are placed in a casket which is draped with a flag. The casket is brought to a hearse where the remains are handed over to a military escort or a family member. Members of the DPAA, both military and civilian, line up outside to solute or honor the identified servicemember as they leave the custody of the DPAA and embark on their final journey home. I had the opportunity to attend a funeral of one such identified servicemember. The funeral was held at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific. The serviceman was stationed on the USS Oklahoma before the start of WWII and was killed during the attack on Pearl Harbor. Servicemembers, both unidentified and known, can be buried at the National Cemeteries of the Pacific or Arlington. Surviving family may choose to bury them at home or alongside their fellow servicemembers. The family of the USS Oklahoma serviceman reached out to the DPAA to welcome anyone to attend the funeral as a gesture of gratitude for the work the agency does. The DPAA works toward the end goal of identification and repatriation for all servicemembers and their families.
I spent the largest portion of my internship on the Tarawa Project and Comingled Remains Analytics, or CoRA. The Tarawa project handles the remains of the servicemen killed in action at the Battle of Tarawa in WWII. I worked on inventory and re-tagging of field accessions from past recoveries. The commingling of remains is an obstacle the DPAA faces in identification processes. Careful inventory, analysis, and the system the DPAA developed, known as CoRA, are intended to increase identification and decrease commingling. The Comingled Remains Analytics system is a computer program that aids in the reassociation of commingled remains to discrete individuals. I worked to input homunculi, or skeletal inventories, from the X-files of remains marked as unidentifiable when initially interred. With the scientific processes the DPAA employs today, remains once classified as unidentifiable by military mortuary services have the possibility to be identified.
I was able to take part in other projects on one-day occasions in addition to my day to day work. I took part in DNA sampling procedures at the lab. A DNA analyst cut bone designated for DNA testing, while I cleaned the chemical hood with bleach and assisted in cleaning between samples to prevent cross contamination. On day one of the internship, each intern gives a buccal swab to keep DNA on file in case cross contamination does occur. I labeled, bagged, and logged the DNA bone samples into the computer system to track the chain of custody. Although the large majority of the internship involved work with human remains, I did have the opportunity to work with the DPAA synoptic collection as well. The synoptic collection is composed of material evidence that is non-evidentiary for identification. The collection includes personal and material items such as wallets, baseball gloves, uniform gloves, parachutes, and other material evidence that may be located with or in relation to remains. My work with the synoptic collection included inventory of the items and relabeling.
The DPAA lab on Joint Base Pearl Harbor Hickakm is not solely designated to the identification of POWs and MIAs. It is the active Medical Examiner’s office of the Pacific. During my time at the DPAA, I sat in on an autopsy of a recent death. I observed the autopsy performed by the Medical Examiner, exposing me to a field unfamiliar to me as a forensic anthropology student. While the Tarawa and CoRA projects were continuous during my internship, each day brought new opportunities for learning.
The DPAA is dedicated to training and continuing education throughout careers. Exposure to unfamiliar procedures and training in the field of anthropology and related fields is important to maintain high standards of practice. One method of training is the DPAA Academy, which is held to train people who work alongside the DPAA in recovery efforts. As part of the Academy training, I took part in the Aiea Loop Recovery Training Hike. A supply plane crashed in 1944 in the mountains of Aiea. The wreckage remains to this day in a steep gulch, overgrown down the side of a mountain. We hiked to the location of the wreckage and discussed field methods for recovery. We repelled down the ravine to observe and assess the wreckage and further discuss complications and methods commonly surrounding DPAA recovery efforts. Aside from the Academy, the DPAA invites visiting scientists to give lectures on their fields of focus. During my time as an intern, I attended the lectures of four visiting scientists. Dr. Dennis Dirkmaat, a professor in forensic anthropology at Mercyhurst University, lectured for three days on the topics: Forensic Taphonomy and the Recovery of Outdoor Scenes, The New Forensic Anthropology, Postmortem Interval Estimates, and Mapping Outdoor Scenes which included an exercise completed outside with a mock recovery scene. Dr. Bridget Algee-Hewitt presented her lecture on “A Computational Framework for Estimating Ancestry and Adult Age-at-Death from Craniometrics and Laser Scans of the Pubic Symphysis: Implications for Forensic Casework.” She discussed the application of methods used for the identification of migrants who have died crossing the border into Arizona, particularly her work with Pema County. Dr. Marin Pilloud presented lectures on odontology over the course of three days. Her topics included: Tooth ID, Dental Morphology (traits of rASUDAS), Observer Error, Dental Morphology lecture and workshop, and Dental Anatomy and Development. The lectures were all related to methods used for identification and age and ancestry estimation in forensic dentistry. Dr. Carl N. Stephan presented lectures from another DPAA location, and we attended via video conference. One lecture he presented was Chest Radiograph Comparison Using Skeletal Remains, which the DPAA refers to as CXR. The lecture was on an innovative identification method developed by the DPAA. Chest radiographs were systematically taken of servicemembers to screen them for tuberculosis. This process began in World War II. The radiographs were taken in uniform positions and from uniform distances. The method in which the radiographs were taken can be reproduced with skeletal remains. The service radiographs were recovered from medical records and restored for comparison. Skeletal remains can be aligned and digitally overlaid to the radiographs to see if the clavicles, ribs, and vertebra are a match. Dr. Stephan presented the lecture “A Code of Practice for the Establishment and Use of Authentic Skeletal Collections” as well. The lecture included a discussion on ethics and the responsibility a forensic anthropologist has for the assurance of respect to the dead. We discussed differences in skeletal collection facilities based on location and source of remains.
As an intern with the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, I was able to experience first-hand the day to day operations that lead to the identification and repatriation of servicemembers who have given their lives in protection of the United States. The dedication of each person involved in the DPAA inspired me as a student of forensic anthropology. The lessons I learned as an intern will follow me throughout my time as a student and into my future career. Learning was a part of each day, and lifelong education is encouraged and facilitated to ensure the highest quality of work. Making connections with the DPAA introduced me to people who share a similar passion for identifying and repatriating the missing and unidentified. As a student at Texas State University I have the incredible opportunity to work with Operation Identification. An internship with the DPAA and work with Operation Identification equipped me with a multi-faceted view on the work required for identification, and the results of that work. My path as an undergraduate student in forensic anthropology is inspired by the mission of the DPAA. I have close personal ties to the military and have incredible gratitude for the work of the DPAA. In 2014 I had a family member from WWII identified through their dedication. On my first day at the internship, I saw a poster of my family member’s case. I met many people involved in his identification and discussed the case with someone who included it in their thesis. I met and worked with multiple people who previously attended Texas State University. Forensic anthropology is a field I have the drive and passion to work in. As an intern at the DPAA I felt encouraged to continue education throughout my lifetime and to explore the options that forensic anthropology has to offer as far as specializations and development of identification methods. My education and personal growth has been greatly expanded by my internship with the DPAA. The experience was more rewarding than I could have ever expected.