01 December 2011

Keeping the Promise

Author Sleeping on the Job
Dreaming of Soldiers Returning Alive
Awake, Ye Blogger!!

Poor PollyBlog. I've failed you miserably. I've been sleeping on the job: so busy working on genealogy that I've neglected to tell you what I'm actually doing, which, after all, was the point of blogging. So in honor of New Year 2012, I will try to pay more attention to you.

You may have heard of genealogists working for the military but wonder exactly what they do. About fifteen months ago I started researching on behalf of the US Army. Since so many people ask me about what I do I thought I'd share a bit of what goes on. I am a case worker, directly employed by The American History Company. They in turn contract with various branches of the United States military to perform research into families of missing soldiers to aid in the repatriation effort. Case workers must be either accredited by ICAPGEN (International Commission for the Accreditation of Professional Genealogists) or certified by BCG (the Board for Certification of Genealogists). I did not apply for this job: I was recommended by a colleague. My area of specialization is New England.




An Honor Guard from JPAC secures the American Flag over a disinterred coffin during a ceremony at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Honolulu, Hawaii. The unidentified Korean War service member was transferred to the Central Identification Laboratory where JPAC scientists will attempt to make the identification. 

You've heard mottos like, "Keeping the Promise," "Fulfill their Trust," and "No One Left Behind." Well, in recent years, legislation has been passed to make sure this happens after the fact as well as in battle. So in 2009 Congress sent a mandate to the Department of Defense to redouble their efforts to find and bring home personnel killed or missing in action in previous conflicts, back to and including World War II. Both military and civilians work on recovery, identification and repatriation of missing military personnel.

 The terms of our contract prohibit us from sharing information that is proprietary to the Department of Defense, but there is plenty of public information about the process.

Repatriation from Korea
Punch Bowl Crater, near Downtown Honolulu, Hawaii 
 Courtesy Hawaii For Visitors website


During Operation GLORY in 1954, North Korea returned the remains of more than 2,000 Americans. At the same, the US recovered remains on South Korean battlefields.

The US identified thousands of these remains. The 848 that could not be identified were buried in 1956 in the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, the "Punchbowl."

So between 1954 and 1990, the US was not successful in convincing North Korea to search for and return additional US remains. However, from 1990 to 1994, North Korea exhumed and returned what they claimed were 208 sets of remains. And then North Korea was once again closed off to the US.

In late October 2011, the US and North Korea reached a new agreement to resume recovery operations in North Korea.
Courtesy JPAC

The Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command - JPAC, was activated in 2003, in Oahu, Hawaii. The mission of JPAC is "to achieve the fullest possible accounting of all Americans missing as a result of the nation’s past conflicts." The highest priority of the organization is the return of any living Americans that remain prisoners of war.*

Additional info is available on the website of the Department of Defense's Defense Prisoner of War - Missing Personnel Office (DPMO)

*To date, the U.S. Government has not found any evidence that there are still American POW's in captivity from past U.S. conflicts.

Current Mission
A column of the U.S. 1st Marine Divisionmove through Chinese lines 
 during their breakout from the Chosin Reservoir. 
Courtesy Wikipedia.com : 2 Jan 2012
Today the Army is pursuing a two-pronged effort. On the one hand, they are going out into the field on excavation expeditions to retrieve remains of any sericement they can find. They go to battlefields, sites of previous prison camps, crash sites and anywhere an American serviceman is reported to have been seen. They bring the remains back to Hawaii, extract DNA, and keep it on file in a huge database.

On the other hand, each MIA serviceman's case is assigned to a genealogist who is then tasked with locating current day family members in order to find the soldier's official next of kin. In addition, because DNA is essential in identifying remains, the genealogist must determine family members eligible to donate DNA samples. DNA of family members is added to the database and when there is a match, bingo! The remains are returned to the family and closure is finally achieved.

There are lots of considerations when doing this kind of research: privacy, for one thing. Sensitivity to family dynamics is another. The repercussions of the death of a young man can still be discerned in these families, even after sixty years. Family members must be approached with delicacy and empathy. Researchers must learn how to read between the lines when hearing conflicting accounts from family members. Some people are angry that they have never been contacted, and others are delighted that some is still searching for their loved one's remains.

It is extremely rewarding work, if somewhat complicated by the inability to access vital records in many states. And from about 1950 to 1990 there is a great hole in information, be it due to privacy acts or a failure of some institutions to keep up with their filing/storage. I find great satisfaction in this work, however, and only hope that some of the solider's whose cases I have worked on will be returned to their families one day.