MIA Remains On Verge Of Disappearing Forever

fromHPR

The Joint POW/MIA Accountability Command at Hickam Air Force Base, Hawaii, is racing against the clock to identify soldiers missing in action from the Vietnam War. There are 1,760 Vietnam soldiers missing in action, but after 40 years of monsoon weather, acidic soil and termites, those remains are disappearing, dimming the hope of aging family members who seek closure.

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.

More than 1,700 U.S. service members are still listed as missing in action from the Vietnam War. Now, forensic specialists at the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command, or JPAC, are in a race against time. Wayne Yoshioka of member station KHPR in Honolulu has the story.

Unidentified Man: (unintelligible)

WAYNE YOSHIOKA: The command echoes in Hangar 35 at Hickam Air Force Base, Hawaii. U.S. service members in formation salute a flag-draped coffin as honor guards carry it from a parked C-17 aircraft to a waiting bus. The procession is a repatriation ceremony for unidentified remains recovered from Vietnam.

(Soundbite of "Taps")

YOSHIOKA: Jesse Baker(ph), a retired Air Force chief master sergeant and Vietnam veteran, attends as many observances as he can because he believes accounting for MIAs is long overdue.

Mr. JESSE BAKER (Retired Air Force Chief Master Sergeant, Vietnam Veteran): If wed done it 30 years ago, wed have found a whole lot more faster. But I feel it's important to welcome our fallen warriors. In fact, we should have more people here welcoming them, because they gave everything a person can give.

YOSHIOKA: After the ceremony, the remains are taken to JPAC's central identification laboratory, the largest facility of its kind in the world.

(Soundbite of beeping)

YOSHIOKA: A security door leads to a glass wall, sealing off the airtight lab from contamination. Fifty sets of skeletal remains are neatly arranged on waist-high tables, attended to by a dozen men and women in white smocks.

Gregory Berg(ph) is a senior anthropologist and lab manager. He says most of the missing service members were aviators in jet aircraft that crashed at high speeds, leaving only fragmented skeletal remains. Excavating Vietnam-era remains is getting harder with each passing day.

Mr. GREGORY BERG (Anthropologist, Lab Manager): We've got a problem of soil acidity and jungle-type of environment, which is extremely degrading to bone. It can literally eat bone to pieces over the course of years or decades.

YOSHIOKA: Having intact bone or teeth is critical for a positive ID, because durable DNA is extracted from each sample and analyzed. That is then compared with other samples provided by unidentified service members' families. Berg said the passage of 40 to 50 years also is making that task more difficult.

Mr. BERG: We've got a lot of aging families out there, and as folks get older it gets harder and harder to get comparison samples to identify fallen soldiers to.

(Soundbite of footsteps)

Ms. JOAN BAKER (Forensic Anthropologist): This is the autopsy suite. We have an area where cut the small pieces of bone and then send them for DNA analysis.

YOSHIOKA: Joan Baker(ph) is a forensic anthropologist at the JPAC lab. She recalls one of her cases that involved remains recovered from a POW camp in Vietnam. The DNA analysis and skeletal evidence all coincided with witness accounts but, Baker says, a positive identification was not made until the final test.

Ms. BAKER: We had an induction photograph from when he first joined the Marines, so his hair was practically shaved and it was a facial photograph, so straight on looking right at his face. So, what we were able to do is essentially overlay this photograph of him in life with a photograph of the skull. And in this case they lined up perfectly.

YOSHIOKA: This particular identification was one of the most memorable cases in her seven years at JPAC.

Ms. BAKER: It can really tug at your heartstrings. He was a healthy, strapping young Marine when he went in and he said that he was in the range of about 85 to 88 pounds when he died a few days short of his 20th birthday. You know, it's very sad to hear things like that. But it's also nice to finally be able to give some answers to that family.

YOSHIOKA: Back at Hangar 35, Barry Bridger(ph) from Kansas is viewing his first repatriation ceremony. He's a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel who was shot down over Vietnam in 1967 and spend six years as a prisoner of war.

Mr. BARRY BRIDGER (Retired Air Force Lieutenant Colonel): This was an awesome ceremony, and I'm quite confident there are very few nations on this earth that would go to the length and to the trouble that Americans do to recover their fallen. And our ancestors would have a cow if we didn't.

YOSHIOKA: Four to five JPAC teams currently deploy to Vietnam each year, but Congress is pushing for more. It boosted JPAC's budget 20 percent - up to $68 million this year and directed them to double their recovery and ID efforts by 2015.

For NPR News, I'm Wayne Yoshioka in Honolulu.

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