Phyllis Frando never met the uncle after whom her cousin was named and whose portrait was long honored in the home of her grandparents.
She was born after he was declared missing in action.
A Marine corporal from the Big Island’s Puna district, David Aspili was last seen fighting the enemy in Korea on Aug. 10, 1952. His body was never recovered.
Now, six decades after the military presumed him dead, the U.S. government has received what it believes are the remains of more than 50 Korean War service members. Their recent repatriation has restored hope in some families of lost Korean War servicemen — including 71 still missing from Hawaii.
Aspili’s parents, who never stopped missing him, have died.
“It would be bittersweet to find him now,” Frando said.
Finding lost soldiers might require mountaineering, underwater sonar, a breakthrough historical discovery or tense negotiations with a foreign state. But locating remains and boarding them onto American aircraft is only the jump-off to the arduous process of identifying them.
At the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency’s forensic lab at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, nearly 100 historians, anthropologists and dentists work to match every recovered bone to the name of one of America’s 84,000 missing service members. The state-of-the-art facility, which cost taxpayers $80 million in 2016, aspires to identify remains from conflicts dating back to World War II.
“Every single set of remains — it can be a single tooth, sometimes that’s all we find — is afforded a full military honors burial no different than a soldier dying in Afghanistan last week,” said DPAA Director Kelly McKeague.
It’s a toiling, fascinating mission attempted at this magnitude by no other nation.
The lab is actively probing 1,400 sets of remains. Some are full skeletons. But more often, as is the case with the new bulk of remains from North Korea, lab workers have just a few bones to work with. Even dust-sized bone flecks get swept up and saved in petri dishes.
Although DNA testing is already underway for the newly repatriated bones — a femur, a partial skull, a few teeth — it could take years of tedious work before the lab produces any identification.
“It’s like a jigsaw puzzle,” said Timothy McMahon, who oversees the Defense Department’s DNA analysis at the Hawaii lab’s sister facility in Dover, Delaware. “The ‘CSI’ shows have created this urban legend around DNA and how fast it can be done. But here’s the thing: We don’t give up.”
Identifying remains can take anywhere from weeks to more than a decade. The length of the process greatly depends on which bones are recovered and their condition.
A tooth or clavicle bone is like a fingerprint, making for a swift identification. When these bones are missing from a set of remains, lab workers turn to emerging science to derive information.
“It’s exactly similar to what you see on The History Channel — unless it’s ‘Ancient Aliens,’” quipped the Hawaii lab’s deputy director Bill Belcher, who wears an understated Aloha shirt beneath his white lab coat.
Isotope analysis, for example, is commonly used to bust cheap imitations of elite region-specific foods, such as phony Kobe beef or fraudulent San Marzano tomatoes. But in the forensic lab, this science is being retooled to help workers determine where a missing service member was born and raised. The key is the unique signature of isotopes that transfer from the rock in a regional landscape to the bone tissue of people born and raised there.
The DNA lab in Delaware is currently working to develop a science that’s essentially a reverse-engineering of popular DNA testing websites 23andMe and Ancestry.com The breakthrough would expand the pool of family members whose DNA can provide a match to the fourth generation. This is increasingly important as time passes and missing soldiers become further removed from surviving kin.
“It would be bittersweet to find him now.” — Phyllis Frando, niece of a missing Korean War serviceman
The Hawaii and Delaware labs remain in steady pursuit of DNA samples from family members. Aiding in this search are organizations like the Korean War Project, which serves as an online repository of information about missing service members and works with family members and researchers.
In 2016, a DNA innovation helped the Hawaii lab to eventually win approval to disinter and analyze hundreds of remains of unknown service members buried in a mass grave at Punchbowl. The bones had been treated with formaldehyde, which previously prevented the lab from successfully extracting DNA.
Another recent DNA advance allows workers to analyze a huge number of bone fragments previously deemed too tiny for testing. Prior to 2006, the minimum bone weight for DNA analysis was 2.5 grams. But now DNA can be extracted from bones that weigh only .25 grams — about the size of a pinkie joint.
“That’s a tenfold reduction,” said McMahon. “In our world that’s huge. The thing that gives me the gray hair is looking five years down at what is going to be our next advancement.”
While DNA plays a role in 80 percent of all identifications, it is not a panacea. Simpler methods are vital, such as measuring the bone length or researching the serial number of a machine gun uncovered from an excavation site and tracing it to the airmen who manned it.
The Hawaii lab’s two medical examiners make all the identifications of the military’s lost service members. Often they do so only after corroborating the results of multiple scientific tests.
“It’s very intensive work and the standards we have are actually higher than what’s used for things like commercial airline crashes,” Belcher said. “We don’t want to make a mistake on a military member who’s been missing for 70 years.”
Congress mandates that the lab maintain the capacity to identify 200 service members per year. All told, 162 service members have been identified so far in 2018. Last year the lab produced 201 IDs.
Edging this meticulous work forward is the fact that many lab workers meet with the families still waiting for a loved one’s remains. They witness firsthand the impossible pain.
When a bone earns a name, lab workers often present the remains to the family and explain how they made the ID.
“It’s tough to put into words how emotional it is to see the families’ gratitude for having their loved one back on U.S. soil,” McMahon said. “The thing that nobody can fathom is even after 50 years this loss stays with the family and it’s passed down through the generations.”
When everything humanly possible to identify a set of remains has been exhausted without yielding an ID, the remains are catalogued. The case goes cold until there’s new evidence to examine.
The lab has 500-plus inactive cases.
Prior to North Korea’s July turnover of 55 tidy boxes storing the purported remains of American service members, the isolated, authoritarian nation had not cooperated in a U.S. recovery mission for more than a decade.
However strategic, the flash of goodwill displayed by a nation more often associated with brazen nuclear missile launches and human rights violations has attracted a lot of attention from the news media.
The Trump administration went so far as to indicate that North Korea’s return of the remains symbolized a step toward the U.S. goal of having the county denuclearize.
McKeague said it’s a gesture that opens the door for dialogue — and a chance to reinstate the recovery missions that the U.S. suspended amid a standoff between the nations.
“Our missions there started out very successful — then geopolitics came into play,” said McKeague, who was named DPAA’s director in 2017. “After 2005, they started shooting off missiles, testing nuclear weapons and the U.S. said, ‘No more.’ We pulled out for good reasons and we haven’t been back since.”
The next step, McKeague said, will be to invite a North Korean delegation to the Hawaii lab to share the intricacies of how the U.S. conducts its forensic identification analysis — something McKeague said the North Koreans have expressed interest in learning.
In the past, the U.S. gained at least one tangible benefit from this exchange of knowledge.
The American remains that North Korea relinquished in July were notably better cared for than the remains the nation handed over to the U.S. in the 1990s, which were highly degraded, poorly packaged and severely commingled.
“It’s a credit to the North Koreans how well cared for these remains were, and I think part of that is due to the fact that the North Koreans visited here in 1995 on sort of a familiarization tour,” McKeague said.
“They were very proud of the fact that we recognized that they had been taken care of, because they acknowledged having seen the way that we handle remains (and) that they wanted to afford us at least the same courtesy.”
It’ll be up to a five-person team to identify them. Four new hires are slated to soon join this team at the Hawaii lab that’s dedicated to scrutinizing the newly returned bones from North Korea.
“Now it’s time for the science,” McKeague said. “And it’s going to take time.”
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