Monday, May 16, 2005

From a nondescript building in Montgomery County’s “DNA Alley” along Interstate 270, military scientists have worked since the early 1990s to put names to the remains of those missing in overseas wars and victims of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

Sometimes using no more than small chips of charred bone, technicians at the Armed Forces DNA Identification Laboratory extract genetic material from remains to tie them to a missing person.

Often, as in the case of many killed when American Airlines Flight 77 crashed into the Pentagon, it is the only way to obtain an identification.

Although Maryland would have a net gain of nearly 6,500 jobs under the Pentagon’s proposed base closings, a list of which was released Friday, the lab would move from Rockville to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware.

The lab’s parent organization, the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology (AFIP), would be broken up and moved from the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in the District.

Chris Kelly, a spokesman for AFIP, wouldn’t comment on the military’s proposal. He said about 160 people work in the lab’s DNA unit.

The recommendations are a small portion of a broad restructuring of bases nationwide that the military hopes will save $48.8 billion in the next 20 years. The Pentagon proposes closing 33 major bases and shutting or merging hundreds of smaller facilities.

The Pentagon’s list is not final — it must be reviewed by an independent commission and then by the president. Congress also would have a chance in the fall to vote up or down on the list as a whole.

The AFIP was created in 1976, but its roots go back to the Civil War, when the Army set up a museum as a repository for examples of diseases and wounds collected from injured soldiers.

The unit helps military and civilian medical centers study diseases and other illnesses.

During the 1991 Persian Gulf War, the Pentagon experimented with using DNA as another way to identify combat fatalities. After the war, AFIP established the Rockville laboratory and started collecting DNA samples from recruits and active-duty personnel.

The lab has a library of more than 4 million DNA cards of nearly every person who has served in the armed forces since 1992. The DNA on a person’s card, usually in the form of a blood stain, can be matched against a body or body part to make a positive identification.

Scientists at the Rockville lab also have worked to identify small human remains of Korean War and Vietnam War veterans, as well as victims of accidents such as the 1990 EgyptAir Flight 990 crash and the 1996 plane crash that killed Commerce Secretary Ronald H. Brown.

After the September 11 attack on the Pentagon, AFIP investigators at the lab using DNA technology were able to identify the remains of 184 of the 189 persons who died on the plane and on the ground.

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