Pentagon Reorganizing How It Brings Home America's War Dead The agency tasked with finding the remains of over 83,000 service members had been reluctant to use up-to-date technology, but will now move toward a DNA-led approach to identifying the missing.
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Pentagon Reorganizing How It Brings Home America's War Dead

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Pentagon Reorganizing How It Brings Home America's War Dead

Pentagon Reorganizing How It Brings Home America's War Dead

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

And I'm David Greene, good morning.

The Pentagon says it is time to change the way it searches for service members missing from past wars. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel announced the overhaul yesterday.

INSKEEP: He's addressing one of the military's more emotional commitments - that even those killed in war will, if at all possible, make it home. The Pentagon spends more than $100 million per year searching for remains.

GREENE: But last year, of the more than 80,000 service members missing, only 60 were identified. The Pentagon effort at reform follows a series of reports by our colleague Kelly McEvers and the ProPublica organization. Kelly now has this update.

KELLY MCEVERS, BYLINE: Hagel's undersecretary, Michael Lumpkin, says there will now be one agency to bring home lost servicemen and better communication with the families of the fallen, and that the government will outsource some of the work to experts in the field.

MICHAEL LUMPKIN: We need to break away from the way of traditionally doing business and fully embrace progressive science, and streamline processes and practices.

MCEVERS: Lumpkin's recommendations address the problems laid out in our investigation; that the current agencies are slow, inefficient, and stymied by outdated science. To understand these shortcomings, take the case of Pfc. Lawrence Gordon, killed in a battle in Normandy in 1944.

Here's Jed Henry, whose grandfather served in PFC Gordon's unit in France.

JED HENRY: I knew that Pfc. Gordon had been killed along with 43 other members of the unit, and I had no idea that any of them hadn't been found.

MCEVERS: Two years ago, Henry contacted the Army and started asking for Pvt. Gordon's files. After nearly a year of research, he found that Pfc. Gordon's name was attached to two bodies in the records. He then requested the military disinter - or dig up and test - the two graves against family DNA. They were in an American cemetery in France.

HENRY: That's when they told us that they needed to sort through over 3,200 files just to create a short list. And then from there, they had to create another short list. And if they got it whittled down far enough, then they might be able to order a disinterment.

MCEVERS: So Henry kept researching on his own. He eventually found mention of a third body in a file, a body that might have been misidentified as a German soldier and buried in a French cemetery. The details matched Pfc. Gordon's case. So Henry went to the Germans.

HENRY: They basically said: Hey, we've looked at your evidence, and if you want to go ahead with the DNA test, that's fine. We'll support you.

MCEVERS: The Germans put Henry in touch with the French, who dug up the remains and tested them. It was a match. The case underscores what we found in our investigation, that U.S. officials up until now have been very reluctant to disinter the nearly 10,000 U.S. servicemen who are buried as unknowns around the world and test their DNA. That's because the military says they already had honorable burials. Pentagon officials told us they will now consider making more disinternments.

The case also highlights the fact that the identification process at the Joint POW-MIA Accounting Command - known as JPAC - and its sister agencies is not led by DNA, even though that's how most missing-persons labs we talked to operate.

Josh Hyman, of the University of Wisconsin, says if the goal is to identify as many remains as possible, the U.S. could set up mobile testing labs at gravesites and test them all for DNA.

JOSH HYMAN: It's a matter of just figuring out the logistics of this. But it's not ungodly expensive, when you consider how much is being spent right now.

MCEVERS: With the power of DNA, scientists can know pretty quickly that a fragment of someone belongs to a person - say, the way they were able to ID people who died on 9/11. In those kinds of cases, many families say it's more important to know their relative died in a certain place than to wait until a substantial collection of the remains can be assembled.

The DNA-led approach wasn't considered by the military before, but Lumpkin says the Pentagon is now moving toward it.

LUMPKIN: So I want to just make it very clear that this will be something unique and new and different - and not business as usual. 'Cause if there's one message out of this, is that as we move forward, this is not business as usual.

MCEVERS: As for Pfc. Gordon, before his remains can be returned to the U.S. with military honors, the U.S. government has to verify the French results. And that process could take months.

Kelly McEvers, NPR News.

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