POW/Missing Personnel Office staff updates families of loved ones

USAF photo: Staff Sgt. Mareshah Haynes Bennie Renfro gives a DNA sample during a family update meeting sponsored by the Defense Prisoner of War/Missing Personnel Office March 20 in San Antonio. Renfro’s nephew, Airman 1st Class Leslie McHaney has been missing from the Korean War for more than 30 years.

By Staff Sgt. Mareshah Haynes: Defense Media Activity-San Antonio

SAN ANTONIO — More than 280 loved ones of American service members missing in action and prisoners of war gathered for a briefing from the Defense Prisoner of War/Missing Personnel Office March 20.

The mission of the DPMO is to establish policies worldwide for accounting for all missing service members from all conflicts from all branches of service.

“Today is our family update, and we do this in cities across the country every month, meeting with family members whose loved ones are missing in action from the Korean War, Cold War, Vietnam War and World War II,” said Larry Greer, the director of public affairs for the DPMO. “The gathering in San Antonio is the largest one we have ever done.

“We’re trying to give them an overview of what’s going on around the world to recover their loved ones, and then later we’ll sit down with them individually and have an analyst go over their specific case,” he said.

By comparing the missing service member’s DNA, obtained from hairbrushes, eyeglasses or even licked envelopes, or that of blood relatives to samples collected during excavations, analysts identify who the remains belong to. Analysts also are able to collect DNA from blood relatives to compare to remains that have been collected during excavations if there are no viable samples of the member’s own DNA available.

During the update, family members had the opportunity to give DNA samples.

“After we get their DNA swabs, we take them back to the lab in Rockville, Md., and we check and log them in where they’re given a case number,” said Timothy Herbert, a mitochondrial DNA analyst with the Armed Forces DNA Identification Laboratory. “The DNA is extracted, amplified and sequenced. The scientist there will assemble the sequence and get an actual mitochondrial DNA sequence. After we do that, it’s loaded into our database system. The database is a reference for all the remains that come in.”

Mitochondrial DNA analysis isn’t specific, like the procedures used for paternity tests, but can be used in conjunction with other processes to make an identification, Herbert said.

Because of the nature of DNA and the conditions of the remains, mitochondrial DNA analysis is heavily used in these cases, a sequence that’s only passed through maternal blood lines. DNA samples from siblings with same the mother, female sibling’s children or cousins from the same grandmother can be used in these cases.

The YSDR sequence is passed through paternal blood lines. Brothers of missing service members, nephews, sons and male cousins on the father’s side are candidates for these samples.

For Susan Jones, finding a DNA reference has been a little harder.

Jones’ father, Capt. Robert Greer, was an F-82 Twin Mustang radio operator in the Korean War when his plane was shot down on what was supposed to be his final night mission.

“He wanted nothing more than to serve his country in the Air Force,” Jones said.

Because Greer was an only child with only female children and no cousins or living relatives on his mother’s side, Jones said they haven’t been able to find a DNA reference yet.

Jones, who was 4 years old at the time and her sister was 5 months old, said her mother was 31 years old when her father went missing, just three weeks before their wedding anniversary. Her mother died three years ago and never remarried.

“The sad thing about (having loved ones) missing in action is there’s no closure,” Jones said. “You always hear stories about people coming home seven or 10 years later. She always had the hope he would come back alive.”

Although it’s been more than 50 years, Jones said it’s a gut-wrenching experience to relive personal memories and to hear other’s stories of missing family members.

“You’re not only upset for yourself, but also what you missed out on, like not having a father, but also for all the other people,” she said. “You just hope it wasn’t all in vain.”

This was Jones’ fifth year attending the family update and she received some information that may help her family get one step closure to finding closure.

“Right now it looks like it’s a dead end for us,” Jones said. “Then today after talking with some people, I thought, ‘My sister may have my grandmother’s eyeglasses!’ That was something on the list (of sources of member DNA) they gave us today.”

“Our hope here is to contribute enough information so they can know everything the U.S. government does about their cases,” Greer said. “It’s important for the family members themselves to be able to paint the whole story, to get through that last painful chapter of what happened.”

In fiscal 2009, the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command identified 98 individuals including 26 from the Korean War, 19 from the Vietnam War and 53 from World War II, according to the JAPC annual report.

“All of our former enemies, the communists in Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, China and Russia are all cooperating with us to do research and conduct interviews with some of the former enemy soldiers and to actually conduct investigations and excavations on the ground,” Greer said.

“Between 1996 and 2005, we sent teams into North Korea, with (North Korean government) support, and we brought out more than 235 sets of remains of American service members,” he said.

Although, Greer said operations in North Korea have been suspended since the spring of 2005 and U.S. government officials will advise the teams how and when they will be able to re-enter the region.