The Department of Defense is considering switching tactics to identify the roughly 6,000 World War II American soldiers who are still missing.
The department seems interested in using DNA analysis, which is seen as more reliable than traditional methods, but in the opposite direction to the way it is used today.
They are currently trying to locate relatives of the missing soldiers and link the family members’ DNA to the soldiers, but discover that many of those soldiers have no children or known relatives.
But they could try doing a similar process in reverse, extracting DNA from soldier’s graves and entering it into different databases looking for relatives.
The public databases can then be used to browse family trees and connect the dots to one person: the Unknown Soldier.
Pictured: The Cambridge American Cemetery and Memorial in England, where thousands of American World War II victims are buried, including some that are still unknown
Pictured: Utah Beach, one of the sectors of the D-Day invasion that shaped World War II
The Department of Defense hopes to use that tactic in the near future.
Researchers have used that strategy successfully for years when viewing crimes, with the identification of the Golden State Killer being the best-known example.
However, it has become a bit more challenging in recent years as DNA databases revise their privacy policies and give users more freedom of choice to allow researchers and other parties to use their DNA.
The military has been reluctant to use DNA in the past, usually just the identification at the end of their identification probes to make confirmations.
Instead, they used dental charts, bone measurements, and combat reports to identify soldiers, as traditional tactics became more and more outdated in the face of modern technology.
A complication in changing the approach is a rule from the Defense POW / MIA Accounting Agency that prevents bodies from being exhumed if there is less than a 50 percent change in making an identification.
According to the New York Times, the budget for the current process is $ 150 million, but results in less than 200 identifications a year, meaning the chances of success are high.
Pictured: the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial, where more unknown graves are buried
The agency can eliminate the rule and exhume any buried body to acquire DNA, although there are ethical dilemmas involved.
For example, the privacy of living people can be violated, because DNA traces can reveal family secrets such as infidelity.
“Switching to DNA-first is faster, cheaper and produces better results,” said Ed Huffine, who previously led testing for the Armed Forces DNA Identification Lab.
“Our goal is not to do more harm than has already been done,” replies Dr. McMahon, the military’s DNA identification expert.
Hopefully, a new DNA process could also help identify black soldiers, whose legacy of slavery and discrimination makes it more difficult to trace through history through official records.
The military is struggling to identify 53 soldiers buried in Italy after fighting in the 92nd Infantry Division in World War II.
“African Americans, even though they have been in a community for hundreds of years, are simply absent from the report,” said genealogist Megan Smolenyak.
A case under investigation by the New York Times shows how much the military needs a new identification process.
A man believed to be Private Melton Futch was found after the war with an address book and a letter from his wife.
But the military couldn’t find a relative for him, which meant they couldn’t justify digging up his body for a DNA sample.
In addition, dental data for Futch did not match the teeth and measuring the bones caused more confusion, leaving the bones buried without a positive identification to this day.
However, any changes in DNA usage pose difficult ethical dilemmas (stock)
Meanwhile, the agency responsible for making the identifications continues their work.
A few weeks ago, Alfred Turgeon, who was lost when his plane was shot down over Romania in 1943, had his remains identified by the POW / MIA Accounting Agency 78 years later.
Turgeon’s cousin, David Bass, delivered his DNA sample to the agency years ago, which used that sample, as well as that of two others, to make the identification, Bass said.
“It’s a great ending for us as a family,” Bass said to the Anchorage Daily News