Most often, the public associates forensic DNA testing as being used for the sole purpose of solving a crime. We know it is quite useful in proving the guilt and innocence of a suspect, and can help identify the remains of an unknown victim. Rarely, however, do we associate DNA testing with aiding in the identification of an unknown U.S. soldier, but that is exactly what the Armed Forces DNA Identification Laboratory (AFDIL) uses the technology for.
This year the United States government will spend $105 million trying to locate and identify a combined total of 88,000 missing service members from the Vietnam, Korean, and World War II conflicts. Their mission to recover dead Missing In Action, or MIA, soldiers of past wars serves two main purposes. The first is to give grieving families some closure to decades of and unanswered questions, and the second is to provide a proper burial to a deceased veteran.
Armed with a team of over 600 employees including government field agents and top-level DNA experts, the AFDIL investigate old crash sites of military vehicles such as planes or sunken boats. These sites are typically located in remote areas such as Cambodia and Laos. In addition to the difficult terrain, because these crash sites are so old, vital information has been forgotten or lost, making it even more difficult to find biological evidence of a MIA service member. Even once wreckage is discovered- other variables such as the explosion from the crash or animals scavenging for food have done damage to the remains, leaving behind only minute samples to analyze. Fortunately, DNA experts have identified remains with a little as two grams of bone and as little as a millionth of a liter of blood.
Once a forensic sample is discovered environmental conditions such as extreme heat, humidity, and acidic soil drastically lower the probability of obtaining a viable DNA profile from that sample. In cases where there is little DNA available forensic analysts working for AFDIL can use Mitochondrial DNA testing. This type of DNA analysis is useful in testing older degraded remains because Mitochodrial DNA (mtDNA) is much more abundant in a cell than nuclear DNA. Most cells contain thousands of copies of mtDNA opposed to nuclear DNA, which has no more than two copies in a cell.
Since 1991, 733 MIA identifications have been made through the use of forensic DNA testing. While this number may seem small in comparison to the total 88,000 MIA soldiers, it has helped to ease the pain for many families who may have never known whether a loved one was alive or dead, and has brought honor, and laid to rest, those who fought so bravely for our country.