How DNA is Used to Identify Servicemember Remains

Yesterday afternoon I watched a wonderful presentation by Ruy Cardoso titled “War Stories: Tales from Military Repatriation Research.”  It was hosted by the Association for Professional Genealogists (APG).  (If you are a member of APG, you will be able see the recording through the APG website soon.)  Ruy Cardoso has worked on over twenty cases researching the families of WWII Army soldiers in order for the Army to help identify the remains of missing servicemembers.

Ruy showed the statistic that there are still tens of thousands of lost servicemembers whose remains have not been identified.  That is such a sad reality.  So many families without the closure of knowing the final resting place of their loved ones.

For Ruy, a project starts when the Army gives him information about a missing soldier including birth date and other identifiers.  He has up to 35 research hours to learn about the soldier’s family, with the goal of identifing their two closest next of kin and identifying living people who could serve as DNA donors.  The DNA donors sought are one Y-DNA donor, three mitochondrial DNA donors, and a very close autosomal DNA donor.  (A single person can have multiple DNA roles, even all three categories in case of a surviving brother.)  Often the time allotted is sufficient.  But if the time runs out, he hands in his report with whatever he has found and moves on.

Ruy discusses the research challenges for this type of work, including the challenges of researching living people when so many records are closed.  He discusses some of his strategies and the resources he uses.  Overall it was a very good talk.

After the lecture I wanted to know more.  I searched around some of the sites Ruy mentioned, and came across DNA FAQs at the Armed Forces Medical Examiner System, DNA Identification Laboratory.  This site has some really interesting information about how DNA is used to identify remains.   For example, in many cases, researchers know that remains must be from one of a closed set of say 10 individuals.  Often researchers can make identifications just by using mtDNA analysis in those cases.  mtDNA is the type that survives the best in these older remains.  This is probably why they ask a researcher to find three possible mtDNA donors.  So interesting.

It also says that relatives of missing servicemembers (from before 1992) can be proactive in helping provide DNA samples.  They don’t have to wait for someone like Ruy to find them:

“If you are the relative of a missing service member, you should contact your Service Casualty Office (SCO) for information on how to provide a DNA sample. . . .  If you are a family member that is not eligible for a DNA donation, there are still ways you can help. AFDIL is able to recover DNA from personal materials such as baby hair, baby teeth, hairbrushes, service covers and envelopes belonging to the missing person. If you have any of these items, or believe you have something else that might be helpful, please contact your SCO for information on how to send these in for testing.”

They say they are even willing to process baby hair, etc. from any relative of the servicemember who would be an eligible DNA donor.

There is a note that for WWII servicemembers, family references are being collected on an as-needed basis.  But it never hurts to contact the SCO.

With the work of researchers like Guy to identify DNA donors, and DNA donations from relatives who contact the SCO directly, more families can find peace knowing the final resting places of their loved ones.



Posted in DNA

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