DOVER AIR FORCE BASE, Del. — More than 83,000 Americans are missing from overseas conflicts dating to World War II — and James Canik’s mission is to account for each and every one of them.
A daunting task, certainly, but not a solitary one.
As deputy director of the Armed Forces DNA Identification Laboratory, Mr. Canik leads scores of forensic scientists who scour files and test genetic material to determine the identities of the thousands of remains gathered by the Defense Department each year.
Directed by Congress and the Pentagon to capture the phantoms of wars, Mr. Canik, a Vietnam veteran, sees his job as a small part of the military’s commitment to honor service members and their loved ones.
“I think what is really important is the fact that we don’t forget,” said the 64-year-old former medical evacuation pilot. “We are always going to go back. We’re always going to look. We’re going to do our best to provide the answers to the families.”
Many Americans will commemorate Memorial Day by remembering the sacrifices of loved ones in the armed services. The Rolling Thunder movement, which on Monday marks 25 years of gathering motorcyclists in Washington to draw attention to the prisoner-of-war/missing-in-action issue, was spurred by those who still grieve with questions about their absent friends and relatives.
Mr. Canik’s lab recently helped provide answers for a family in Bowersville, Ohio.
A family reunited
Army Cpl. Clyde E. Anderson was last seen Nov. 28, 1950, driving a jeep in a convoy along the Chosin Reservoir in North Korea. The convoy was ambushed by communist forces, and he was listed as missing in action.
Cpl. Anderson’s sister Martha, who raised him when he was a boy, held out hope of seeing him again but died in 1994, never knowing what had become of him.
Martha’s daughter, Carol Snider, had heard stories about her uncle Clyde, whom she never met. Still, she needed to know what happened to him and where he was.
This month, the Defense Department announced that the remains of Cpl. Anderson of the 31st Regimental Combat Team, also known as Task Force Faith, had been identified and would be returned to his family for burial with full military honors.
“It was very sad, bittersweet,” said Donald Snider, Mrs. Snider’s husband. “It’s a peace of mind. My wife is just ‘wow.’ It’s a hundred pounds lifted off each shoulder.”
The Sniders attended Cpl. Anderson’s burial May 12 in Blanchester, Ohio.
“It was grand. I had never seen anything like that in all my life,” Mr. Snider said. “The 21-gun salute, the motorcade. … People got out and saluted when they passed. It was unreal.”
Cpl. Anderson was buried beside his sister.
“I was amazed that they were still looking after all these years,” Mr. Snider said. “It’s a stroke of luck that he’s given back to us. There’s so many other boys still there, we pray that they get to come home today.”
‘Keeping that promise’
Defense statistics show 73,681 service members missing from World War II, 7,957 from the Korean War, 126 from the Cold War, 1,666 from Vietnam, and six from Iraq and other recent conflicts.
Finding and identifying just one missing service member can take decades and span the globe.
That work begins with the Joint Prisoners of War/Missing in Action Accounting Command (JPAC) in Hawaii, where researchers identify sites where the missing could have fallen.
Using records from the National Archives at College Park, Maryland, researchers track down and interview eyewitnesses, piecing together details about the missing’s last known whereabouts and the circumstances of the disappearance.
When a site is recommended for excavation, a recovery team of 10 to 15 members — including a lead anthropologist, forensic scientists and archaeologists — is sent to site for up to 60 days and often in harsh conditions.
A medic and an explosive ordnance disposal technician are always part of the team because of the buried explosives in many areas where researchers dig for remains.
Lee Tucker, a public affairs officer for JPAC, said the work is sometimes dangerous. About 10 years ago, he said, a helicopter carrying a recovery team and Vietnamese officials crashed in poor weather, killing all 16 aboard.
“You hear it said that we’ll leave no man behind,” Mr. Tucker said. “Literally, we are keeping that promise. We are keeping the nation’s promise of leaving no man behind. That’s absolutely huge.”
Remains are flown to JPAC’s identification laboratory in Hawaii. Often the remains are so degraded that DNA is the only way to identify the missing.
That is where the Armed Forces DNA Identification Laboratory at Dover Air Force Base comes in.
The DNA difference
The 160 forensic scientists at the Dover lab extract mitochondrial DNA from the remains for identification.
Mitochondrial DNA is long-lasting genetic material that is passed down only on the maternal side. A sample from a relative on the maternal side of a family can be compared with that from remains to determine a familial link.
Analysis of mitochondrial DNA has led to an increased number of identifications, especially recently from the Korean War. Between 1991 and 1994, North Korea gave the United States 208 boxes of remains believed to contain the commingled remains of 200 to 400 U.S. servicemen, known as the “K208.”
Documents accompanying the K208 set of remains indicated that Cpl. Anderson’s were among them. Using the documents, dental and X-ray records, and mitochondrial DNA from his nephew and niece, the researchers were able to identify the long-missing soldier.
JPAC “had cases out there which, unfortunately, because of the conditions of the remains … dental comparisons were not possible, and they could only glean so much from anthropological evaluations of material,” said Mr. Canik, the Dover lab’s deputy director.
“So, therefore, DNA then all of a sudden became a very real tool … that we could use in the ID of those deceased service members from Vietnam, Korea, Cold War and World War II losses.”
In fact, forensic scientists can use mitochondrial DNA to identify remains dating back even earlier than World War II. Scientists recently discovered two sets of skeletal remains that could be from the 17 sailors lost on the USS Monitor in 1863 during the Civil War. Researchers and forensic scientists at the Dover lab now are trying to identify which of 17 sailors match the skeletal remains.
The Dover lab also is tasked with collecting mitochondrial DNA from current service members to keep on hand for identification of remains when necessary.
The lab’s DNA registry holds more than 6 million bloodstained cards bearing genetic material from every person who has joined the armed forces since 1992.
‘Not just a job’
JPAC’s search and recovery missions and the Dover lab’s genetic identification operations are overseen by the Defense Prisoner of War/Missing Personnel Office, an agency of more than 100 civilians and military members who work with the State Department and other nations to negotiate terms for excavations and the transfer of remains.
The office also is responsible for training service members how to survive if they become separated from their units during overseas assignments.
In addition, the office provides families of missing troops with periodic updates on the searches for their loved ones and, through each service’s casualty office, notifies those families when remains are identified.
Meanwhile, JPAC carries out about 70 excavations a year, and identifies the remains of about 80 missing personnel each year, thanks in large part to the mitochondrial DNA analysis conducted by the Dover lab.
Last year, Congress ordered the Defense Prisoner of War/Missing Personnel Office’s units to identify 200 remains a year beginning in 2015, increasing the budget from $70 million last year to $100 million this year.
Mr. Tucker, a JPAC spokesman, said he is confident that the goal will be reached. He cited the unit’s talented, dedicated staff and significant technological advances.
“I have never been in an organization where everybody is passionate and dedicated and focused on this project,” he said. “It’s not just a job to anybody here.
“There’s such a sense of pride and devotion to doing this, being able to provide closure and healing to family members who have been grieving for 60 years. … It’s an amazing thing that we’re doing.”
Researchers, scientists and their bosses met recently with family members in Indianapolis as part of a periodic outreach program, which Mr. Canik takes personally.
“We’re trying to provide those answers to those families [who] still have a void that exists out there,” he said.
“I’m a Vietnam veteran, and that is my generation. I always remind myself that it could have been me. I might not have come back,” he said. “I would have really liked someone to maybe have pursued that if something would have occurred where I did not make it home.”