Forensic Genealogy: Will it Be Used to Identify Remains of Military Personnel

Today’s news headlines are filled with stories about cold cases being solved by law enforcement — human remains returned to loved ones after relatives have been missing for decades and elusive serial killers finally being brought to justice for their crimes.

So, what has changed during the last four years? Why are more missing persons and criminal cold cases being solved than in the past? And can the Department of Defense (DoD) adapt their policies and processes to capitalize on what is working for law enforcement to help them identify the remains of soldiers from prior military conflicts? 

Great questions, but an organization like the DoD doesn’t make changes quickly and without considerable internal contemplation. To make a switch that will literally reverse engineer their entire human remains identification process is something that the DoD is just now mulling over, according to an article published in The New York Times.  

How the DoD Identifies Human Remains

The DoD’s POW/MIA Accounting Agency Laboratory is the governmental agency responsible for the grim task of identifying skeletal remains of those unaccounted. The lab is staffed by anthropologists, archaeologists and forensic odontologists.

Lockheed P-38 Lightning Fighter plane that crashed in September 1942 during World War II just off the coast of Wales

At the lab, all human remains and material evidence are examined by forensic anthropologists. Artifacts might include items such as military uniforms, personal affects, support equipment, and identification tags.

Dental remains can be extremely important. An individual’s dental records are a way to identify remains as they have unique individual characteristics and may contain surviving mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA). Ideally, the agency’s forensic odontologists will have antemortem (before death) X-rays to use for comparison, but even handwritten charts and treatment notes can be critical to the research and identification process. 

If a forensic examination and dental records are inconclusive, the lab uses mtDNA to assist with identification. About three-quarters of its cases involve mtDNA sequencing. Samples taken from bones and teeth are analyzed at the Armed Forces DNA Identification Laboratory, where they extract and amplify the surviving mtDNA to determine the genetic sequence. This sequence is compared with sequences from family reference samples provided by living individuals who are maternally related to the unidentified American.

World War II, Omaha beach, June 6, 1944 (photo credit U.S. National Archives, U.S. Coast Guard Collection)

Since 1992, the American military services have been actively collecting maternal family reference specimens from family members of military personnel whose remains have not been recovered or identified from Southeast Asia, Cold War incidents, Korea, and World War II to use for DNA comparison. 

But time is running out or has already passed for thousands of soldiers for which an eligible family member has not been located or already voluntarily come forward, thus the traditional method used by the military of making a DNA comparison is no longer a viable option in these cases. Thus, the human remains unidentified as much as 70 years ago will remain unidentified forever. That is, unless the DoD’s approach to identification isn’t modernized. 

Cracking the Unsolvable: Restoring the Identities of our Fallen Heroes

Streambed in Binh Dinh Province, Vietnam, March 14, 2012 where the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command was seeking evidence that could help identify a soldier missing from the Vietnam War (photo credit, Department of Defense)

There are dozens of remains recovered each year from military archaeological sites, jungle battlefields, sunken ships, and downed planes. And there are many more unaccounted for that are buried in graves marked for the unknowns.

Will it be possible to identify these remains as well? 

That answer is yes, but it means the DoD will need to retool its processes and relax its policy on exhumation. The DOD’s current rules prevent the agency from exhuming remains without at least a 50 percent chance they can be identified. In the past, reaching this arbitrary threshold was not always achievable, and since time is running out to identify eligible family members for making DNA comparisons, existing identification practices lessen those odds today. 

That’s why it’s imperative that the DoD expand its field of DNA search, beyond its present narrow set of comparative family member DNA profiles. While there remains a chance a match will still be found this way, there are even better odds of identification if the soldier’s DNA profile is uploaded to a public genetic database, such as GedMatch. That system is capable of generating hundreds or thousands of genetic matches.

Using these matches, genealogists can create family trees and narrow down the matches to close relatives, and eventually to the person with the matching DNA. 

Known as forensic genealogy, this approach used by law enforcement officials since 2018 has a proven track record of success. Check out the List of Suspected Perpetrators of Crimes Identified with GEDmatch.

It’s time for the DoD to take the steps necessary to bring closure to family members and honor the sacrifice of brave Americans who paid the ultimate price for our freedoms.

How to Provide a DNA Sample

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. The SCO will mail you a free DNA donor kit that contains a donor consent form, instructions, three buccal (cheek) swabs, and a shipping envelope. The collected samples are then placed in a pre-addressed/pre-paid envelope and mailed to AFMES-AFDIL at Dover AFB, Delaware. 

Eligible relatives include: a maternal relative (maternal mother, maternal aunt, brother, sister; a paternal relative (father, brother, paternal uncle, paternal cousin) or a nuclear relative (father, mother, brother or sister).


The Vietnam War: The Definitive Illustrated History, Smithsonian Institution
On Desperate Ground: The Epic Story of Chosin Reservoir–the Greatest Battle of the Korean War, by Hampton Sides
A Woman of No Importance: The Untold Story of the American Spy Who Helped Win World War II

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