The Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command’s mission is to conduct global search, recovery and laboratory operations to identify unaccounted-for Americans from past conflicts in order to support the Department of Defense’s personnel accounting efforts.
Employing nearly 500 joint military and civilian personnel, JPAC spans the globe in search of unaccounted-for Americans.
The command maintains three permanent overseas detachments to assist with the command and control, logistics and in-country support during investigation and recovery operations. Detachment One is located in Bangkok, Thailand; Detachment Two in Hanoi, Vietnam; and Detachment Three in Vientiane, Laos. Forward-deployed liaison officers are permanently located in Seoul, Republic of Korea, and in Stuttgart, Germany.
The laboratory portion of JPAC, referred to as the Central Identification Laboratory (CIL), is the largest forensic anthropology laboratory in the world.
Personnel from JPAC, along with other U.S. and foreign specialists, conduct research, investigations, and recovery operations to identify remains of Americans unaccounted-for from World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War and the Cold War. The accounting process is organized into the following areas: research and analysis, investigation and recovery, and identifications.
The accounting process starts with in-depth archival research by JPAC and other DoD intelligence specialists, historians and analysts. These specialists seek out information from foreign and domestic records, archives, interviews and other sources.
Researchers and analysts compile all available information into a “loss incident case file” for each unaccounted-for individual. This file includes historical background, military medical and personnel records, unit histories, official correspondence, maps, photographs, intelligence reporting and other evidence. This groundwork lays the foundation to initiate in-country operations locating sites where incidents involving missing American personnel may be located.
After all available evidence and information is compiled and analyzed, an investigative team deploys to potential sites. Each JPAC team consists of four to 15 people, depending on circumstances, including a team leader, analyst, linguist, communications technician and medic. In some instances, an anthropologist, explosive ordnance disposal technician, forensic photographer and life support technician may augment the team.
Most importantly, investigative teams work to determine what happened to the unaccounted-for American and, if possible, a specific location to where JPAC should deploy a recovery team to excavate a potential site.
Once the decision has been made to excavate a site, a recovery team is activated. The command has 21 recovery teams consisting of 10 to 14 people including a forensic anthropologist; team leader and sergeant; linguist, medic, life support, communications, and explosive ordnance disposal technicians; a forensic photographer; and a mortuary affairs specialist. Standard recovery missions last 35 to 60 days, depending on the location and recovery requirements on site.
Team members have to be in top physical condition to reach excavation sites, which are often in very remote places. Team members routinely walk through dense jungles, scale mountains and glaciers and rappel down cliffs to reach a site. Each team travels with up to 10,000 pounds in survival and excavation equipment. Recovery sites range in size from a few meters for individual burials, to areas larger than a football field for aircraft crashes, some of them under water.
Recovery teams use standard field archaeology methods in the excavation as directed by the on-site anthropologist. At a recovery site, this scientist, also referred to as the recovery leader, directs the excavation much like a detective oversees a crime scene. Each mission is unique, but there are certain processes each recovery has in common.
The first step is for the recovery leader to define the site or determine the site perimeter. Once a site perimeter has been defined, the recovery leader establishes a grid system and sections the site with stakes and string.
Each section is then excavated one grid at a time. Every inch of soil that comes out of the site is screened for any potential remains, life support equipment or material evidence. To help with what can be a massive soil removal effort, JPAC may hire anywhere from a few to more than 100 local workers.
Initial analysis occurs at the site. Once the recovery effort is completed, the team returns to Hawaii. All remains and artifacts found during the recovery operation are transported to JPAC’s CIL for analysis.
The CIL is the most scientifically diverse skeletal identification laboratory in the world and is staffed by more than 60 forensic anthropologists, archaeologists and odontologists (dentists). In 2008, the CIL became the second federal laboratory to pass the American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors-Laboratory Accreditation Board, International Standards Program. The command maintains the highest possible level of scientific competence and integrity to ensure the ethical standing is beyond reproach.
Upon arrival at the lab, all remains and artifacts recovered from a site are signed over to an evidence coordinator and stored in a secure area. Forensic anthropologists are responsible for the analysis of human remains and some material evidence, such as military uniforms, personal effects and identification tags.
Forensic anthropologists first examine all recovered skeletal remains in order to try to produce a biological profile that includes sex, race, age at death, and stature. Anthropologists may also analyze trauma caused at or near the time of death and pathological conditions of bone, such as arthritis or previously healed breaks.
The forensic anthropologist assigned the case in the laboratory is not the individual who led the field recovery. This entire procedure is carried out in the “blind,” meaning the anthropologist does not know the suspected identity of the individual whose remains are under analysis. However, scientists are provided specific details that are required to select appropriate scientific techniques (i.e., the approximate area of the loss incident). The blind analysis is completed in order to prevent any subconscious bias from influencing the scientist’s analysis.
Scientists use a variety of techniques to establish the identification of unaccounted-for Americans, including analysis of skeletal and dental remains, sampling mitochondrial DNA, and analyzing material evidence, personal effects and life support equipment. The JPAC scientific director evaluates these overlapping lines of evidence in an effort to establish individual identification.
Dental remains are extremely important to the identification process, as they offer the most solid means to establish an identification. An individual’s dental records are often the best way to identify remains because teeth are durable, have characteristics unique to each person, and are more likely to contain surviving mtDNA.
Ideally, JPAC’s forensic odontologists will have ante mortem (before death) X-rays to use for comparison, but even handwritten charts and treatment notes can be critical to the identification process.
Unlike nuclear DNA, which is unique to that individual, mtDNA is passed directly from a person’s mother. Generally, all people from the same maternal line have the same mtDNA sequences. Since these sequences are rare, but not unique to the general population, they cannot stand alone as evidence for identification.
The lab uses mtDNA comparison in about three-quarters of all identifications. Samples taken from bones and teeth are analyzed at the Armed Forces DNA Identification Laboratory, to determine the genetic sequence. This sequence is compared with sequences from family reference samples provided by living relatives who are maternally related to the unidentified individuals. These family reference samples are collected as needed by the Service Casualty and Mortuary Affairs Offices.
While JPAC identifies a previously unaccounted-for American about every six days, the recovery and identification process may take years. Approximately 74 individuals are indentified each year. Once a case is complete, the information is transferred to the appropriate Service Mortuary Affairs Office to personally notify the family of the identification.
1973: Central Identification Laboratory, Thailand (CIL-THAI) established; focused on the Americans still missing in Southeast Asia.