Thursday, May 7, 1998 – 1:30 p.m. (EDT) Mr. Kenneth H. Bacon, ASD (PA)
Mr. Kenneth H. Bacon, ASD (PA)
[Also participating in the briefing were Mr. John C. Metzler Jr., Superintendent of Arlington National Cemetery; Dr. David R. Rankin, Forensic Anthropologist, U.S. Army Central Identification Laboratory, Hawaii; Dr. Mitchell M. Holland, Armed Forces DNA Identification Laboratory, Rockville, Md.; and Mr. J. Alan Liotta, Deputy Director, Defense Prisoner of War/Missing Personnel Office.]
Mr. Bacon: Good afternoon. I want to start with an announcement today about the Tomb of the Unknowns. Secretary Cohen has approved the recommendation to disinter the remains of the Vietnam Unknown from the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington National Cemetery. He reached this decision after weighing the sanctity of the Tomb with the nation's commitment to the fullest possible accounting of Service members missing in the defense of our country.
Scientific advances have given us identification techniques that did not exit in 1984 when the remains of an American killed in Vietnam were placed in the Tomb of the Unknowns. After considering this and other information, Secretary Cohen concluded that he has an obligation to pursue the fullest possible accounting of Americans lost in battle. If we can identify the remains now we have an obligation to try. The families of fallen Service members deserve nothing less.
As you know, last January, Secretary Cohen appointed a Senior Working Group to review the status of the remains of the Vietnam Unknown and whether those remains could be identified with DNA testing techniques. That group was head by Rudy de Leon, the Undersecretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness and Jan Lodal, the Principal Deputy Undersecretary of Defense for Policy.
That group consulted with Members of Congress, with members of the scientific community, with veterans organizations. You've been briefed by somebody who worked with that group about the outcome of their study.
Secretary Cohen studied that report and he also carried on his own consultations with Members of Congress in reaching his decision. We anticipate that the disinterment will take place one week from today, May 14th. He has asked the Military District of Washington, the Secretary has, and people on his staff to work together to come up with an appropriate ceremony for the disinterment. We will have details for you on that later.
I brought today, to the studio, five experts, four of whom are going to talk to you about the process of disinterment, the process of identification, and the process we go through in trying to provide the fullest possible accounting.
Let me first introduce the one person who will not brief and he will stand up, Dr. Kevin McElfresh of the Bode Technology Group, who is serving as a scientific consultant to the DNA testing operation. He will survey the monitor of the testing as it takes place to make sure that everything is done in compliance with the latest scientific techniques.
We anticipate that there will be other consultants appointed along the way as the process unfolds and we'll have more announcements to make on that later.
The first briefer, after I sit down, will be somebody known to many of you, Jack Metzler, the Superintendent of Arlington National Cemetery. He'll talk about the disinterment and what that involves, how long it will take, and he will not have details of the ceremony to talk about today, but we will review on that later, as I said earlier.
He'll be followed by Dr. Kevin Rankin, a forensic anthropologist, with the United States Army Central Identification Laboratory in Hawaii. He will talk about the process of identifying remains.
After him Dr. Mitch Holland from the Armed Forces DNA Identification Laboratory will describe the process of mitochondrial DNA testing, which is the new scientific technique that we hope to be able to use on the remains currently at Arlington.
And the last briefer will be Mr. Alan Liotta, who is the Deputy Director of the Defense Prisoner of War Missing Personnel in Action Office. And he'll be able to answer your questions about the full-accounting process and about the dealings that he and members of his staff have had with families recently about this decision to disinter from the Tomb of the Unknowns. So, with that, I'll turn it over to Jack Metzler.
Mr. Metzler: Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. I'm Jack Metzler, the Superintendent of Arlington National Cemetery. I'd like to run down with you some of the logistics aspects that will be required to disinter the Unknown during the next week. There are two contracts that will be issued. The first contract will establish a privacy fence around the affected area of the Tomb. The second contract will be responsible for the actual removal of the remains and opening up of the crypt area. This is marble, concrete and granite, so it requires a special contractor to do that.
Once we've erected a privacy fence, the Tomb Guard will be relocated from the current position here [pointing to diagram] where the guard is moving back and forth, guarding the Tomb, to the east end where that ceremony will continue to happen and where we will have the visitors and tourists, as well as [where] the other wreath ceremonies that are conducted each day take place.
This area in red indicates the privacy fence which will be an eight-foot high white plywood fence that will protect the dignity and sanctity of the Tomb.
That will be one of the first operations that goes up. But I'd ask if you would just kind of hold your questions until I finish, and then we'll try to get everybody's questions at the end.
This is not unprecedented. We've moved the Tomb Guard in the past as we have done renovations each time at the amphitheater or at the plaza to the east side, as we've seen here in the chart.
The first thing that will have to be done is the pavers that surround the actual crypt area — if I could have the next chart, please. A row of these pavers will be saw-cut and removed and we will be reusing them. So it will have to be very delicate work so that we don't damage any of them. Then the actual crypt cover will be removed by a crane and placed off to the side.
Then, secondly, an inner chamber cover which actually protects the remains will be removed and then the casket will be lifted to the ground level, placed onto a portable cart and then we will re-close the tomb so it will look just as it does today with the two covers in place and the crypts placed — the pavers placed around the crypt as well.
We expect that entire process to last between 24 and 36 hours. Once the casket comes — I should tell — let me you a little about the casket. The casket came to us as a sealed casket. Once the casket comes to the top of the surface an evidence seal will be placed on the casket and an American flag will be draped on the casket. That evidence seal will be placed by a member of the Central Identification Lab who will also be in attendance as well as two independent observers to watch the actual disinterment process.
After the remains have come to the top of the ground and the area has been reinstated then a brief ceremony will be conducted and the remains will leave the cemetery for testing.
I will be followed by David Rankin.
Dr. Rankin: I'm David Rankin. I am a forensic anthropologist with the United States Army Central Identification Laboratory in Hawaii. I wanted to talk with you a little bit about the issue of what's involved in the forensic anthropology analysis and in accordance with the fullest possible accounting and the identification process.
The fullest possible accounting of all Americans missing from past conflicts has always been a national priority. The United States Army Central Identification Laboratory, or CILHI, has been charged with the responsibility for the search, recovery and identification of all Americans lost in previous conflicts.
To accomplish this end, CILHI employs all available scientific, accepted techniques in the identification process to include anthropological, odontological, and microbiological methods. I'm here as a forensic anthropologist. My job along with my colleague, Robert Mann, will be to accept and take custody of the remains at the time of disinterment.
The integrity of the remains as evidence will be preserved with an evidence seal and proper chain of custody will be observed at every step in the identification process.
The remains will be transported to the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology, or AFIP. There, we will conduct a thorough forensic examination of the skeletal remains. I will then prepare the bone samples to be submitted to the Armed Forces DNA Identification Laboratory, or AFDIL, for mitochondrial DNA testing, but first we will apply the recognized scientifically accepted anthropologic techniques and try to build what we term a biological profile.
What I mean by biological profile is we are going to try and determine from the skeleton the minimum number of individuals which may be represented by any case we look at. The estimated age of death of the individual, the race of the individual, the sex of the individual and the estimated living stature of the individual. All of these determinations are based on observations made from specific landmarks in the bone. Obviously, the completeness and the condition of the remains will affect these determinations.
Which of these skeletal landmarks are present? Did the remains experience parimortem trauma? Are they fragmented? Are they nearly complete? Were they exposed to intense heat, maybe fire, secondary explosions after an aircraft crash or impact? Were they exposed to the environment immediately following the incident? If so, how long? Were they exposed on the surface? Were they in a buried environment? Were they in a wet environment? All these factors will have to be considered in the forensic assessment.
We will also have to consider the condition of the remains as we observe them as they're being brought out of the Tomb.
In addition, we'll look at all potential individual identifiers, if present. Examples such as pathologies and anomalies. We'll produce a post-mortem radiographic series in case antemortem radiographs or medical charts become available for comparative purposes.
After all the anthropological observations are completed, I will then prepare the bone samples to be submitted to AFDIL for the mitochondrial DNA testing. Again, the condition of the remains will dictate the appropriate samples to be submitted.
It's also very important to keep in mind that the submission of samples does not guarantee a successful, viable mitochondrial DNA sequence. The mitochondrial DNA is subject to the same environmental degradation discussed concerning the bone.
Dr. Holland, from AFDIL, will be addressing you concerning the mitochondrial DNA analysis. And, finally, I need everyone to understand that much effort goes into this identification process. The mitochondria DNA result, if obtained, would be combined with all of the anthropological results and only then could a recommendation for identification be made by CILHI if scientifically and legally supported.
Obviously, I cannot at this time address any of the expected findings. To do so would be unfair to the families involved. I can only tell you that we will handle the remains with the respect and thoroughness which we give to all of our cases at CILHI. Dr. Mitchell Holland will now address all the issues concerning the mitochondrial DNA testing.
Dr. Holland: Good afternoon. My name is Mitchell Holland. I'm the Chief of the Armed Forces DNA Identification Laboratory, or AFDIL. AFDIL has been applying mitochondrial DNA testing for the identification of U.S. military personnel since 1991. Mitochondrial DNA can be abbreviated mtDNA to make things a little easier and that's how I'll refer to it for the rest of my briefing.
Since 1991, AFDIL has done mtDNA testing service for the Central Identification Laboratory, Hawaii. In that time, we have reported back to CILHI greater than 90 mtDNA matches. In addition, greater than 100 mtDNA matches are pending further analysis.
DNA testing has been performed in a forensic setting for over a decade to identify individuals or solve crimes; however, mtDNA is different from the DNA testing normally performed in crime laboratories. mtDNA is a second human genome. The human genome that is most often referred to as the nuclear DNA genome, the chromosomal DNA found in the nucleus of the cell. mtDNA is found outside the nucleus of the cell in mitochondria which is commonly referred to as the battery of the cell or the energy source of the cell.
There are two very important characteristics of mtDNA that are useful for the identification of older skeletal remains. The first is that there are hundreds of copies of mtDNA in each cell and because there are more copies, it's a more sensitive testing system. It's really the system of choice for these older skeletal remains.
Secondly, mtDNA is maternally inherited. It is not a mixture of your mother and your father as is the case with other forms of DNA; therefore, all maternal relatives can be used as a source of reference material.
mtDNA testing is basically a four-step process. DNA is removed or extracted from the skeletal material using approximately two grams of skeletal material. That's approximately a one-square inch piece of bone. Once the DNA has been removed from the skeletal material, specific regions of mtDNA are targeted for copying. That is, copies are made in what could be coined as a biological photocopy machine. And this is using the Preliminary Chain Reaction or PCR, which is a commonly used genetic diagnostic tool.
Once we have mtDNA PCR product, we read the genetic code of the product or determine the mtDNA sequence of the product. Once we have an mtDNA sequence from the skeletal material, we then compare that sequence to the family reference source. An mtDNA sequence match is strong support for an identification of skeletal remains; however, it is best used as mentioned previously with other circumstantial and scientific information.
Once we receive portion of the remains from CILHI, in this particular case, we will attempt to generate an mtDNA sequence profile. This should take approximately 20 working days. Only at that time and not before will we process and make comparisons to maternal family references. This should take an additional 15 to 25 working days depending on how fast we receive the references. Once comparisons have been made, we will report our findings to CILHI.
I have not gone into many of the details of the technical aspects of mtDNA here today; however, we will be having a media day [at AFDIL] on Monday, the 11th of May. For those who are interested, please contact the AFIP, specifically, Chris Kelly who is our Public Affairs Director. At this point, I'd like to introduce Alan Liotta.
Mr. Liotta: Good afternoon. I'm Alan Liotta and I'm the Deputy Director of the Defense Prisoner of War Missing Personnel Office. My office is responsible for our nation's accounting efforts for all conflicts, past, present and future. You have heard some of the specifics required for the disinterment at the Tomb of the Unknowns and for the follow-on applications of forensic identification techniques, including the use of mitochondrial DNA.
Briefly, I'd like to recap this identification process so that everyone has the same picture. After the remains are disinterred, they will be sealed by CILHI and taken to the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology where the forensic work will begin. As part of that forensic work, CILHI will take samples from the remains and turn them over to the Armed Forces DNA Identification Laboratory to do the mitochondrial DNA testing. AFDIL will then return a recommendation to CILHI based on the results of their testing.
CILHI will take that report, incorporate it with all the other forensic evidence which they have into a final identification packet. That process — that packet will then be shared with outside consultants as is the normal procedures for all Vietnam remains that undergo identification processes, and then it will be shared with the family for whom the individual is associated. At that time, the family will have the opportunity to request an outside expert review of all the scientific work which has gone into the identification process.
The package, after return from the family, will be turned over to the Armed Forces Identification Review Board, which will make its own independent review and can ask its own questions about findings in the process.
Once they have approved that package, the identification will be considered confirmed and announced publicly, and then the remains will be turned over to the appropriate family for proper disposition.
As Mr. Bacon noted earlier, at the outset of this meeting, our national commitment to our unaccounted for served as a key precept in the Senior Working Group's deliberations and Secretary Cohen's decision.
I would like to take a few minutes to provide you a picture of the DoD commitment around the world to the fullest possible accounting of our servicemen who still wait to be returned to their loved ones.
To put this commitment in context, there are still 2,090 Americans unaccounted for from the Vietnam War; more than 8,100 from the Korean War; 130 who were involved in shootdowns of Cold War aircraft; and more than 78,000 from World War II. These are daunting numbers, but the United States Government has been extremely successful in bringing answers to many families over the years.
Since the end of the Vietnam War in 1975, we have recovered and identified the remains of 493 Americans. These represent 493 families for which there has been some closure. Our hope is that our work at the Tomb of the Unknowns will give more answers to more families.
You are all aware of the recent breakthroughs that we have had with North Korea. And I'm pleased to say that today we have a team in North Korea working in the first of five scheduled joint recovery operations to recover the remains of soldiers still unaccounted for from that war.
Our teams operated in North Korea for about six consecutive months last year and our 1998 schedule will keep them in country for more than seven consecutive months — this, inside a country with which we are still technically at war.
Our current team has been on the ground since April 21st, and they have already recovered some American remains and military artifacts associated with those remains. We plan to repatriate these remains back to U.S. military custody across the Demilitarized Zone with full military honors about the middle of this month.
In addition to our main recovery work inside North Korea, we have reached agreement for another archival search through their military records in Pyongyang. We did such similar work last year and returned with copies of documents relating to unaccounted for Americans from that war.
We continue to analyze these documents for clues on the fates of our missing servicemen, cross-checking them against the hundreds of interviews which we have been conducting with former American POWs, and then validating them with information that we've amassed from presidential libraries and other archival sources.
Our search for information on World War II losses frequently carries our teams, some of whom have preceded me here today, to some of the most rugged and dangerous locations around the world.
The jungles of New Guinea, icy mountainsides in southern China, the glaciers of Tibet, and underwater in Bodo Bay, Norway have all yielded the remains of American servicemen, and have been identified through some of the most advanced technology in the world, some of which you've heard about today.
Our Cold War losses number about 130, and often present some of our most difficult challenges. Yet, through the work of the U.S.-Russia Joint Commission on Prisoners of War and Missing in Action, we have located, identified and returned the remains of two airmen shot down during that period.
Just as we do in Southeast Asia, we have permanently assigned personnel stationed in Russia conducting interviews, pouring through archives, and participating in joint recovery operations, all seeking answers on behalf of our families. The question is a deceivingly simple one. What happened?
Later this spring, we hope to mount another excavation in a Russian cemetery where we believe we have located the remains of another American flyer shot down during the Cold War period.
I've touched briefly on our worldwide operations, and given you some sense of the dangers that our young men and women face every day in trying to bring answers to the families, and the families are truly the core part of this process.
Many of you know, from your own interviews with CILHI or visits to crash sites in Southeast Asia, how strongly committed we are to the families of our American servicemen and other Americans lost as a result of hostile action.
Our commitment to these families takes us into their home towns each month with a team of experts, some of whom are here today. Since 1995, we have conducted what we call family updates in major metropolitan areas where we have a large number of families representing our missing from all conflicts.
Just last month, I led a team to Pensacola, Florida to meet with about 70 family members, taking to them the latest information of our operations worldwide, and specific information about their individual cases.
These are often very moving and usually very emotional sessions. But the families tell us that these monthly updates are extremely important to them. While some of their cases may never be resolved, at least hearing the story about what happened to their loved ones begins to bring some sense of release and, in some small ways, a beginning of closure.
As we expected when we began these outreach programs three years ago, most of our families that attended them represented the Vietnam conflict. But now, as a result of the Department's outreach program to Korean War families, we routinely see almost a 50/50 split in attendance at these meetings.
I've just hopped off the red-eye flight from the West Coast where I have briefed two of the nine families who may be affected by today's decision. We will continue to brief other families at their request of decisions and the Senior Working Group's deliberations.
While it would not be appropriate for me to go into the details of our personal discussions, I will share with you that in these sessions they all have expressed an understanding of the magnitude of the Department's and the nation's commitment to them and our accounting for process, to their loved one as part of that, and the deliberateness with which the Department and the Secretary of Defense made this decision. That concludes my remarks and I would like to open the floor for questions at this time.
Mr. Bacon: There's questions of the whole group.
Q: Have you asked any of the families that may be involved in the current issue to give DNA or blood or anything?
Mr. Liotta: We have not asked any of the families to provide a blood sample. Every family is encouraged to — through our outreach program — to provide a family reference sample. This has been particularly important for our Korean War families, where the maternal lines in some cases are passing away, and the family's wish to have that record on file so that in the future we could identify.
But typically we do not request a family reference sample until we have actually successfully extracted the DNA from the remains.
Q: So when would you do that with the families that might be involved here? After you have done work on the remains themselves?
A: First, we will do the work on the remains and attempt to extract a DNA sequence from the remains themselves. Yes.
Q: Will the anthropological testing and the DNA testing be done simultaneously? Or will they have to be done concurrently? And how long is it anticipated before there might be some indication as to whether these remains can be identified?
A: Let me ask Dr. Rankin and Dr. Holland to give, come up and give the specifics in terms of the overall process and the timing.
Dr. Rankin: Well, because of the nature of the mitochondrial testing, the anthropological assessment has to come first. We have to survey the entire set of remains. The DNA samples are then cut — small pieces of bone — from the remains and then transported to AFDIL. So that analysis would be subsequent. And as Dr. Holland said, there's a little variance in how long it would be until you get results from that.
Q: How long would it take for the anthropological exam?
A: To do the exam itself it may take a week or so. But the results of that would also wait until we get all the information from the mitochondrial DNA testing. Any medical charts, records, comparison — all this goes into an entire case packet before it can be sent forward for any kind of recommendation.
Q: Now, these remains had undergone anthropological exams in '78, '79. Are those records still available? Or would you prefer to work from a clean slate?
A: They're still available but we want to keep an objective perspective here and treat it as we would any other CILHI case coming in. It needs to be kept as a new forensic case.
Q: Dr. Holland said that there was — that DNA would give you strong support for a family match. Is that to say that the DNA does not give you something like a fingerprint that is a unique match?
A: Well, let me first say that the DNA — and Dr. Holland will come up and finish this part. The DNA, the mitochondrial DNA by itself, is not as discriminating as genomic or nuclear DNA. And in that way it is strong circumstantial evidence which lends to the identification. So…
Q: It's not a hundred percent, right?
Dr. Holland: Mitochondrial DNA or mtDNA is one of the strongest single genetic markers. The problem is, is that you cannot combine that with other genetic markers. And so it's best used with other circumstantial and scientific information.
Q: Sorry, I'm just not a scientist. In my bones I have mtDNA, does anybody else have DNA like I do? Or like the remains will?
A: When you make an mtDNA match, you can usually exclude about 99 percent of the population as the source.
Q: So it's a near perfect match?
A: It's very strong support.
Q: And this is an exclusionary process as opposed to taking one set of DNA and comparing it to another and absolutely confirming that it's a match, is it not?
A: That's mostly correct. It's also best used if you can exclude, as well as include. And so if you have a number of individuals involved in an incident, if you can exclude individuals — as well as include one — then it adds strength to the overall identification process.
Q: But if you take it to — if you get a match from a family member, then that's virtually 100 percent, right? If you get a sample from some guy's mom and then match it up, it's going to be 100 percent, right?
A: The match is 100 percent. But the question of identification is not 100 percent.
Q: All right.
A: In other words, they will match — the fact that they match is implicit. However, the — whether it's a 100 percent identification — that is not correct.
Q: Well, on a percentage — let's say — let's say it matches 90 percent of an individual. Could — is it possible to have a separate 90 percent of another DNA? In other words can — can more than one set of DNA's come to that kind of percentage match to a specific individual living today? Is it possible for that to happen? Or are they so different that that can't happen?
A: If I understand your question correctly, this is only a single genetic marker. And so we look at a specific region. We look at it for the skeletal material and the family reference source and then make a comparison. And if they match, again, it generally can exclude greater than 99 percent of the population as the source of the remains.
Q: What are the chances that you might not get a match here? That you might not be able to identify?
Dr. Rankin: Well, the possibility of not getting a sequence, I think, maybe is what you're talking about. That's a possibility because DNA is — it's biological evidence, and like all biological evidence — bone, soft tissue — the DNA itself — is held together by chemical bonds, and if these chemical bonds are exposed to environmental insult, ultraviolet sunlight, acidic soils in the ground, intense heat, bacteria which are involved in the degradation process, all these things can degrade the DNA.
And so you don't really know, in this case, until you try it. So that's why we say it's not a guarantee, but it's a good attempt.
Q: Given what you know about the original condition of these remains and they were recovered within six months of what they believe to have been the source of the accident on May 11, 1972, and given the fact that they were kept under controlled climate conditions pretty much of that time, what do you think the likelihood is that there would be the DNA sequencing and then a DNA match?
A: Well, I think obviously, based on what's occurring here, that it's hopeful. I can't say that it's positive that it will be successful. I cannot put a percentage on that kind of thing. Like I said, you have to try it and see whether you're successful or not.
Mr. Liotta: If I can add to that very quickly, if you go back to the report in the briefing that Charlie Cragin gave to you a week or so ago, the Senior Working Group did look at those kinds of issues.
And the two decisions or two recommendations which we received is that AFDIL informed us that, based on what we knew of the types of remains that are entombed in the crypt, there was a good chance that we would be able — there was sufficient mass of those bones to be able to take a sample from, not that the sample would yield the remains, yield a sequence but that, in fact, we could get a sample from those remains.
CILHI, based on their experience, advised the Senior Working Group that there was a better than 50 percent chance that we would be able to extract a sequence.
And that's not, of course, knowing all the current conditions of the bones. And even though — I hesitate at the term “controlled environment” because they still are below ground, and any number of things could have taken place, and we will not know that until Mr. Metzler and his group begins the disinterment process.
But, based on CILHI's experience working with Vietnam remains and Korean remains, they were willing to say to the Senior Working Group that there was a better than 50 percent chance that we would get a DNA sequence from these remains.
Q: We're talking about actually announcing if everything goes perfectly, and I heard the 15-20 working days. But how does that translate into months? When would you be able to actually announce if you found a match?
A: It's very difficult to put a timeline on this, because we don't know if the DNA process will go quickly or go slowly.
Generally speaking, the overall DNA process, by itself, takes somewhere between 30 to 45 [working] days to take place. You have to add into that the forensic work ahead of time, and then the comparison and the report preparation.
So I mean, at the very earliest, we're probably talking 90 days or so, or more than that, and that would be at the very earliest, and that's assuming everything goes extremely well in the process.
Q: Can you tell me a little bit — maybe Mr. Metzler could talk about the condition, what you figure the condition is of the Tomb site. Is it airtight? Is there any water there? And also, are you concerned about disturbing the remains on either side?
Mr. Metzler: Let me answer the first part of your question, or the second part of your question first, because that's the easiest part. Each of the remains are in individual crypts, so we will not disturb the other remains.
As far as the condition of the casket below ground, that's an unknown factor, and we won't know until we lift the lids and see what's down there.
Q: What is the casket made out of?
A: It's a steel casket.
Q: So, given the possibilities — I mean, you don't even know what the condition of the remains is — given a real possibility that you might not find a DNA sequence, you might not be able to find a match, what decisions have been made about what would then happen to the remains or what then happens to the Tomb?
A: I think that's a question that goes way down the road, and we're not ready to answer those questions yet. I think we need to take it one step at a time, exhume the remains, let the scientists do their testing, and then see what happens from there.
Q: As you go through the layers that you're going to go through here, what are those paving stones made out of, and then what is the next layer, et cetera?
A: These paving stones are made out of granite. The top is made out of marble. Below the top, there is an inner crypt, and that has a concrete, on all four sides, with a removable lid.
Q: Is there also a steel plate?
A: No, there's no steel plate.
Q: There is not?
Q: And then the casket?
A: And then the casket, yes. Once you remove the second cover, then the casket is exposed at that time, and then the casket can be lifted to the ground level.
Q: The top of the tomb is marble? Or, I'm sorry, as you're going straight down, you go —
A: This is a —
Q: — granite, marble —
A: This is granite on the outside, marble, to the actual tomb, the crypt cover. And then below the crypt cover is a concrete cover.
Q: Is there dirt there, or clay?
A: There is some leveling sand below the cover, but not between the cover and the next cover. That's an open void.
Q: Is that concrete cover sealed, or is it —
A: No, it isn't.
Q: — or is it like the weight holds it in place?
A: That is correct. The weight holds it in place.
Q: So seepage could, at least theoretically, come in under that concrete cover?
A: That's my understanding, as well.
Q: That black thing on the side, is that the crane?
A: This is a waiting hearse.
Q: Hearse. All right. Never mind.
A: The crane itself will be brought into position after hours, to do the removal of the covers.
Q: Dr. Rankin, in your forensic work, can you, say, eliminate — there's a good number of individuals who are possible sources of these remains? It's been speculated up to eight individuals who were possible — who could possibly be the source of these remains. Can your anthropological examination eliminate certain numbers of those and would you, in fact, in that examination, say that, you know, we don't need to go to these family members for a match, because they are physically excluded?
Dr. Rankin: I think the search has already been narrowed quite a bit, based on some of those parameters. I can only really address the scientific aspects of the analysis, what the bones are going to tell me.
I will try and build an estimate of the stature and the other things I talked about. I have not myself gone into detail studying the case files for all of those nine individuals because I do not want to be biased in terms of what I would expect to find. So I, myself, do not know the exact stature and race of all nine individuals that may be involved.
Q: You'll make your examination and come up with a basic description of age, size, race, sex of the remains?
Q: Then you will examine the files of the nine individuals who are possible sources of those remains?
A: At that point, then, yes. A search would be done for medical records, dental records, medical charts, more information surrounding the loss incident. Then at that point, things would be compared.
Q: If this set of remains is identified, is there another set of remains that may be a candidate to be put in the Tomb of the Unknown? Or do you believe, as some do, that given today's science, we may never have another American combat unknown?
A: That is a very difficult question. And, again, my job here is to address the scientific aspects and work on the identification. And I think that's really better left to the policy makers.
Q: Are there any other sets of remains that are unidentifiable from Vietnam at this point? To be considered or unlabeled or whatever the correct terminology is?
A: Well, at one point these remains were considered unidentifiable. And as we see here emerging technology, we don't know what's going to happen five years from now, so they will have to weigh all of that into their decision.
Q: Mr. Liotta mentioned that you've been soliciting blood samples from Korean War veterans and the Korean War unaccounted for — just a few thousand more than from Vietnam. Is it conceivable at all that the remains of the Korean veteran in the Tomb might be identified? And if not, why not?
Mr. Liotta: I think the key difference between the Korean War Unknown or the Unknown from World War II and World War I, and for that matter, the Korean War unknowns that are interred at the Punchbowl, the National Cemetery at the Punchbowl in Hawaii, is that in this case the Vietnam Unknown, we have information that allows us to narrow our search to a very small possible population pool of individuals. In order for the mitochondrial DNA to be successful, you need to have a maternal reference sample.
In the case of the Korean War Unknown, if you don't have that type of data, if you don't have the information that allows you to determine a population pool, you have no one to turn to for a family reference sample. And absent that family reference sample, there is no way to employ mitochondrial DNA as an identification tool.
Q: If a family member brought you a tooth and said, “This was my loved one's tooth that he or she lost as a child,” you couldn't match that or a lock of hair?
A: I'll let Dave come back up; but I mean, first of all, teeth, themselves, are a more positive and powerful identification tool than even DNA because of the uniqueness of an individual's teeth. But in terms of using teeth to extract mitochondrial DNA from that as a marker and say the maternal line has passed away and you're looking for other ways to get a reference sample, either from teeth or hair, things like that, none of those are as good as straight remains, but I'll ask Dave to talk to you about that.
Dr. Rankin: Well, actually, teeth are a very good — not to contradict — teeth are one of our best sources of evidence even for a DNA because the enamel is the hardest part of the body and oftentimes survives when other parts don't. There's a soft inner part of the tooth called the pulp chamber and we've been getting some sequences from that.
The problem that could arise with someone coming forward with a tooth or hair sample, or whatever, is the question of chain of custody. You know, where did it come from? And is this, indeed, from that individual? So, there would have to be some investigation into that before that — but it is a possibility.
Q: Was that a part of what you mentioned — the blood sample you're soliciting from the Korean War veterans is that not… I mean what are you doing with those — aren't those the reference markers that we're talking about here? Or could they be used as such?
Mr. Liotta: Yes, they could, but you again need to have an idea of who it is that's in the Unknown that you would want to compare it against. And if you keep in mind that the precedent and the established procedure for interment includes the destruction of all the records that are associated with the interment, particularly, when you go back into Korea, it's going to be extremely difficult.
Vietnam being much more recent and because we maintained a separate casualty folder on Lieutenant Blassie, we were able, as you remember from Mr. Cragin's briefing, to reconstruct the process that brought the remains out of the Tan Son Nhut Mortuary into CILHI and then redesignated as X-26 and interred in the Tomb. In the Korean case, the destruction of those records almost certainly would be a much more complicating factor.
Q: There's a lot of outside experts, it sounds like, who are helping with this as consultants. Why were they brought in? Were there concerns expressed by some of the families or by individuals or organizations?
A: No. I think it was an effort by the Department to ensure that — and this is the first time that something of this nature has ever been conducted and the sanctity of the Tomb was the key precept that we discussed as part of the Senior Working Group. We wanted to be sure that the remains of the Vietnam Unknown are treated with the dignity and respect throughout the entire process [as] they deserve and that no effort is spared to make sure that the process, itself, has the greatest integrity possible surrounding it.
Q: Some of the families have asked for independent DNA tests or have told us they have. Will they be able to get bone material to do that? Since it's an unknown and there is no next of kin, how would that work if they wanted to do that?
A: Well, the problem with a second type of testing is that, as Dr. Holland explained, this is a consumptive process. You destroy the remains as you do this process. And in this case, we only have six fairly small pieces of remains. We only have one intact bone and the rest are four small pieces of rib and a portion of the pelvis. So there are not a lot of remains there.
One of the things which we would hope to do is that, by having the outside consultants involved with the process from the beginning, that working with some of the families that we can use this as a way to show the integrity of the process and not have to rely on a further destruction of the remains.
Q: Do you know how much this all will cost to do this, this disinterment?
A: I don't have an actual cost breakup for you because this is considered part of our accounting process and so it is built into the normal accounting procedures. I can tell you that — Mitch has told us that for just the disinterment at the Tomb, which is really the only part that is different from the rest of what we do in the accounting process, [it] will cost about $20,000.
Q: And once the remains are disinterred and the site will be restored in this two-day period and the Tomb will look as normal until this sequence is done? Is that the…
Mr. Metzler: Yes. Before we have a ceremony and before we open the area back up to the public, the Tomb will be reestablished as it is right now.
Q: Any idea when that ceremony would now be if you're doing this on the 14th?
A: We hope to do it all at the same time. Our goal is to start around the 12th with prestaging equipment and then to have the operation started the night of the 13th, completion on the day of the 14th, and then the ceremony, if that is the sequence of events, following very shortly after that, within hours.
Q: The ceremony would be on the 14th as well? If that, if all goes…
A: If all goes well, we don't have any weather delays, we don't come across any obstacles that we're not prepared for, that would be the sequence.
Q: Pardon my ignorance, but are you using DNA matching to identify say Vietnam era remains that you have not been able to identify with families that are missing those members?
Mr. Liotta: Yes, we routinely use mitochondrial DNA technology as a forensic tool in the identification process for both — well, for Vietnam, Korea and for World War II remains.
Q: What success are you having, say, in the case of Vietnam remains?
A: Overall I believe AFDIL's success rate has been about 85 percent in establishing sequences and obtaining sequences and using those as part of the forensic process. Is that correct, Mitch?
A: Eighty-five percent.
Press: Thank you.
Michael Robert Patterson was born in Arlington and is the son of a former officer of the US Army. So it was no wonder that sooner or later his interests drew him to American history and especially to American military history. Many of his articles can be found on renowned portals like the New York Times, Washingtonpost or Wikipedia.
Reviewed by: Michael Howard