New York State Funeral Directors Association

Identifying Fallen Heroes

We honor those members of the armed services who died for their country. Thousands of survivors will visit Arlington National Cemetery and other grave sites around the country to remember loved ones who perished in the line of duty. But for some, there will be no grave side ceremonies.

Their bodies have never been recovered from where they made the supreme sacrifice. According to the Associated Press, some 1,800 American soldiers who served in Vietnam are still missing in action (MIA) and remain unaccounted for. Recent news stories have reported on attempts to identify remains believed to be those of servicemen who were reported missing after the Vietnam war.

For survivors of these loved ones, the grief process can be a difficult journey. What happens to the grief process when a loved one's body has not been found? Psychologists tell us that denial is one of the steps in the grieving process. Until bereaved persons accept that death has happened, no progress can be made in resolving their grief. Research indicates that knowing that body has been located helps to fulfill the psychological needs of those left behind. 

The Department of Defense has recognized the importance of this phase of grieving and has authorized the expenditure of sizable amounts of time and money to locate and identify the remains of MIAs discovered since the close of the Vietnam war. Now, thanks to DNA identification, the remains of a number of American soldiers who died in Vietnam have been identified. Forensic anthropologists, forensic dentists and equipment recovery specialists who work at the U.S. Army Central Identification Laboratory in Hawaii have been able to identify the remains of MIAs from even the smallest bone fragment. To assist in this process, families of missing men use a sample kit to submit a blood and saliva sample to the Laboratory. Using DNA to identify remains can be a complicated process as there are two types of DNA -- nuclear and mitochondrial. The latter type of DNA has a longer survival rate and can be extracted from bone fragments. It is transmitted only through the maternal line so it may limit DNA matching for comparison purposes if there are no living relatives on the mother's side.

In some cases, extensive genealogical searches have been undertaken to trace a family member for DNA matching. Once the identification has been made, the family can then: (1) accept the identification; or (2) ask for an outside opinion; or (3) reject the identification. If the family accepts the identification, the remains are released to them for burial. If the family asks for an outside opinion, the Central Identification Laboratory will transport the remains to the family's expert. Once the remains are returned to the family, they will at last be laid to rest with full military honors in a cemetery of the family's choice.


Research information derived from www.miafacts.org