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Pentagon's Identification of the Fallen Questioned

Officials strive to recover all possible remains, but sometimes there are none. Relatives are asked to trust circumstantial evidence.

October 16, 2005|Martha Mendoza | Associated Press Writer

SACRAMENTO — It's a wrenching day when somber officers in crisp suits and uniforms knock on the door of a soldier's family, but Sgt. Glenn Miller's sisters were actually looking forward to the visit.

Thirty-seven years after their beloved brother, a Green Beret, was last seen in battle in Vietnam, they were ready for the truth, for closure.

They set out some drinks and snacks and turned on the video camera to record this dramatic family story. But the story they recorded during the visit in May was not one of closure.

The "identification" that the military said it had made left them disappointed, they said, because it was based on circumstantial evidence.

For families like Miller's, there is some inherent comfort in a fragment of bone, fingernail or skin. For decades, using dental and medical records and more recently DNA technology for verification, the Pentagon has been bringing that comfort to those who have lost loved ones in conflicts from World War II to the war in Iraq.

But the Associated Press has found that one-tenth of official identifications lack any biological evidence.

Miller's case was one of these. For his sisters, that realization was hard.

Army mortician Johnny Johnson had flown across the country for this momentous day. He was joined by Army Maj. Anthony Koopman, a local college ROTC director who was assigned to be the casualty assistance officer.

Johnson opened an inch-thick book about Miller's case and began a dignified presentation on the military's proud practice of pursuing remains, no matter how old. He described an investigation in the 1990s that led archeologists to a battlefield near the Laos border.

"They excavated the hill," he said on the sisters' video, which was viewed by AP. "Out of that excavation site the remains that they were able to identify through dental and mitochondrial DNA was, first of all, it was Sgt. Glenn Miller."

He went on to name 11 Marines who also reportedly died in the battle in May 1968.

Christy Jackman wiped sweat from her forehead as he spoke. Her sister, Marion Alschuler, sipped a cool drink, her hands fidgeting with the bottle. Christy's daughter, Caroline, stroked a cat as she remembered her handsome uncle. Then, quietly at first but soon more aggressively, they began to ask questions.

"What did you find of Glenn specifically?" they asked. "A bone? A tooth? A fragment?"

Johnson asked for patience, and asked them to listen to "the authenticated, official government version," but they pressed him to jump ahead.

"Was he burned?" they asked.

Johnson tried again, shifting the subject to a burial of the group remains that would be held in Arlington.

"And what are they?" interjected one sister.

"But what's in there?" asked another.

"If you'll hold your questions," Johnson begged, "I will get to it. It's just a matter of me explaining to you cut-and-dry."

But the women, their voices rising, tears welling in their eyes, didn't hold back.

Eventually Johnson dropped his even tone and blurted: "We didn't find anything for Glenn! We have no remains for Glenn! We have a bunch of remains!"

There was a moment of silence.

"You don't have any remains at all?" asked Jackman.

"No. No remains," he said.

"Then how do you know he's there?" she asked.

Johnson explained that Miller was reportedly last seen at the site. It was reasonable, he said, to assume that some of his tissue was mixed among the unidentifiable remains at the site.

"I don't like that at all. There's no remains and we're supposed to buy that?" Jackman said.

"What I'm saying is, indulge me," Johnson said.

This request, to trust that an identification was made through circumstantial rather than biological evidence, is one the Defense Department has made repeatedly.

Of the 1,260 servicemen declared recovered and identified since 1973, at least 10% had no distinctly verified remains, said Dr. Thomas Holland, scientific director of the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command at Hickam Air Force Base in Hawaii.

Instead, the investigators used testimony, archival documents and such evidence as a piece of uniform or an identification tag to tie the individual to the remains. In many cases, a handful of commingled remains -- which may not actually contain parts of the identified serviceman -- are buried under a group gravestone, Holland said.

It's not unusual for a coffin to be nearly empty. Military officials usually include a new, decorated military uniform representing the highest-ranking soldier in the group.

Defenders of circumstantial-evidence IDs offer an analogy: If an airliner goes down with 300 passengers, and authorities can only individually identify half of them, isn't it reasonable to believe that the remaining bones and fragments contain parts of the others?

But in battle, it's not always clear where everyone is. And when scientists attempt to reconstruct events that took place decades earlier, facts can become even more obscure.

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