Bring Them Home

Posted on 18 September 2009


Is there anything more horrific than burying a loved one felled in a war?  Perhaps. Some families of those who have fought overseas have never received closure in the form of their loved ones’ remains or even a small personal memento.  In 1947, having calculated that the whereabouts of 78,750 American soldiers remained unknown after World War II, the United States Air Force dedicated the third Friday of every September as POW/MIA Recognition Day.


Over the course of the next six decades, the number of missing warriors rose.  The Korean War claimed 8,051; Viet Nam, 1,742.  The Cold War took another 165 and the Gulf War, 7.  To date, the sole American soldier missing in Iraq is Ahmed Qusai al-Taayie.  These numbers do not include personnel killed in action and never brought home.


JPAC (Joint POW-MIA Accounting) is the governmental organization charged with the daunting task of locating, identifying, and returning to their native soil the aforementioned service men and women.  Housed in Hawaii, JPAC has been headed, since 2008, by Rear Admiral Donna L. Crisp.  Colonel John M. Sullivan serves as Deputy Commander, Johnnie E. Webb as Deputy Public Relations-Legislation Affairs, Sergeant  Major Jackie D. Brown Jr. as Command Senior Enlisted Leader, and Dr. Thomas D. Holland as Scientific Deputy Director for the Central Identification Lab.  In addition to these officers are teams dedicated to search and retrieval missions, comprising archaeologists, anthropologists, linguists, and deontologists.  A quick second read of those job titles is indicative of the enormity of JPAC’s objectives.


In most cases, the search for a missing person involves outside researchers as well as a perusal of the national archives and record depositories as maintained by the U.S. and foreign governments.  Veterans, external historians, private citizens, families of missing Americans, and amateur researchers also routinely provide information about cases.  JPAC experts compile the resulting  data in what is called a “loss incident case file” for each person who remains unaccounted.


During a typical investigative mission, teams interview potential witnesses, conduct on-site reconnaissance, and survey terrain for safety and logistical concerns.  All of this painstaking work often bears fruit; in many cases, investigative teams unearth new information that may help with eventual identifications. Teams operating in countries with active media outlets or a strong community network often gain new, valuable information about additional sites simply by talking with people who reside in the area. The main goal of investigative missions is to obtain enough information to correlate or connect a particular site with a missing individual.  If enough evidence is collected, a site will be recommended for recovery.


Using mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) in about three-quarters of the cases, the process of identifying remains is conducted at the CIL (Central Identification Lab) in the United States. All mtDNA samples are analyzed at the AFDIL (Armed Forces DNA Identification Laboratory) located in Rockville, Maryland.  Recovered genetic patterns are compared with genetic patterns from reference samples provided by each unidentified service member’s family.


Teeth are often the best way to identify remains because they are durable, unique to each person, and may contain surviving mtDNA.  Ideally, JPAC’s forensic deontologists will be in possession of ante-mortem (before death) X-rays to use for comparison.  Even if these X-rays do not exist, handwritten dental charts and treatment notes can be critical to the identification process.


Personal effects are a special category of material evidence. Every effort is made to recover all personal items, such as a ring, watch, or comb, from the excavation sites.  While these items aid in identification, they are also priceless keepsakes for surviving family members. Once the identification process has been completed in the lab, these personal items are returned to the loved ones.


In honor of the sacrifices made by service men and women whose remains are recovered and identified, JPAC holds an arrival ceremony with a joint service honor guard and senior officers representing each branch of the military.  Veterans, community members, and local active duty military often attend the ceremonies to pay their respects as the remains are transported from a U.S. military plane to JPAC’s Central Identification Laboratory.


JPAC needs your help in recovering missing personnel.  To find out if you are a possible DNA donor, please visit and click on the appropriate box.  If you prefer, you may call the organization’s international, toll-free number: 1-866-913-1286.  Or, you may email them at


On the third Friday in September, the State of New Jersey honors its POW-MIA‘s with a breakfast sponsored by Assemblymen Jack Conners and Herb Conaway.  These public officials invite veterans from all over the state to join in a memorial ceremony dedicated to the men and women who never made it home from the wars.  Honored Guests at the 2008 event included WWII POW veteran Joseph O’Donnell, Mrs. Judith Young, who is a Past President of the “Gold Star Mothers,” Mrs. Anna Marko of Cherry Hill, an 84 year old widow of WWII POW Leon Marko, State Adjutant General Glenn Reith, Colonel Stephan Abel, and other veteran dignitaries.


As always, the event features “The Missing Man Ceremony,” a solemn and moving salute to approximately 50 missing soldiers from the Garden State.  Last year also saw the presentation of the New Jersey POW-MIA Medals to Joseph O’Donnell of Robbinsville, for his 9-month interment in Stalag Luft IV in Germany.  Joseph’s time in the camp included a forced 600-mile march that spanned 86 days.  The Assemblyman’s ceremony also presents a posthumous award to Leon Marko, who was captured in Tunisia and spent two years in a German prison camp.  Leon’s wife, Anna, accepted her husband’s award.


Assemblyman Conners (D. Burlington/Camden) is the Chairman of Military and Veteran Affairs Committee and an advocate of the National League of POW/MIA Families. With the support of veteran, business, and corporate organizations as well as that of his fellow Assemblyman Herb Conaway, the annual event to “Bring Them Home” will remain alive in New Jersey.   Thus, those who are gone are never forgotten.


The author wishes to extend special thanks to JPAC staff member Rick McKelvey for providing the vital information upon which this article is based. 

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4 Responses to “Bring Them Home”

  1. Editor says:

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  3. Carroll B. Merriman says:

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