DNA will help ID fallen heroes

This Veterans Day, I am reminded of how many of our brave service members were never properly accounted for after making the ultimate sacrifice for our country.

Since World War II, there have been over 82,000 missing American service members. The sad fact is that about half of them were presumed lost at sea and probably will never be recovered. The others were never properly identified, or are still missing and possibly recoverable.

In the past, when a service member’s remains could not to be identified, we buried them in graves marked as Unknown Soldiers. This gave no closure to the families and little dignity to our fallen comrades. But now, thanks to advancements in DNA technology in the last 20 years, we can amplify tiny samples of DNA and process degraded samples, which we could not do before. This allows us to identify more and more of our service members.

The Department of POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA) is responsible for tracking and identifying our missing service members. With the advancements in DNA testing, they can now identify these previously Unknown Soldiers as well as newly discovered remains.

In the last few years, the DPAA has identified the remains of hundreds of sailors from the USS Oklahoma, which was sunk at Pearl Harbor. These sailors were previously buried in unmarked graves at a place called the Punch Bowl. And in Tarawa, in the Pacific Ocean, where a mass grave from World War II was discovered by a nonprofit group, the DPAA has been able to identify over 50 of our missing Marines.

This leads me to why I’m writing this letter. The DPAA could not have identified any of the missing without the families’ DNA to compare with theirs. As of June, the percentage of missing service members who have some type of a family reference on file varies by the conflict — those from the Vietnam War with 85 percent, Korean War with 92 percent, Cold War with 85 percent and WWII with only 6 percent. As you can see, that leaves many, especially from WWII, with no way to help identify remains even if they were found.

If your family has a missing service member, I urge you to provide DNA samples to the DPAA. It’s free and painless.

To do so, you first need a Service Casualty officer (SCO). Each branch of the military has its own SCO. Once you have a case number, the SCO will mail a DNA kit to your home; you do three cheek swabs and mail the samples back in the envelope provided. The DPAA.mil website has information about DNA and frequently asked questions about the process. The SCO information for the individual military branches can be found at www.dpaa.mil/Families/Contact-Information.

Please help our country give these heroes the proper honor they deserve.

Rich Angeli, chairman

VFW Department of Washington POW/MIA