Stars & Stripes: Outdated methods will hamper efforts to identify USS Oklahoma remains, experts say

As the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency exhumes the commingled remains of 388 sailors and Marines from the USS Oklahoma who are buried in Hawaii as unknowns, some outside experts are skeptical that DPAA scientists will be able to identify them based on outdated DNA testing methods.

The DPAA lab usually uses mitochondrial and Y-STR DNA testing in its work, methods that could put the Hawaii laboratory and the Armed Forces DNA Identification Laboratory in Delaware at a disadvantage.

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More Stars & Stripes coverage of MIA Accounting Efforts


Another Failed Commander Departs – Webb, Holland & AMG Still In Charge

This is Franken’s farewell message to “his” troops.

Sounds really good – just don’t look under the hood.

Note who he has specifically cc’ed – Holland and Fletcher.  Fletcher is the retired O6 who used to be deputy commander of JPAC – he “retired in place.”  These gentlemen – along with Webb and a couple in the lab – are still on board and have out lasted yet another figurehead commander.

Franken describes a wonderful vision – who knows if it will work, but at least he’s thinking of change.  That’s nice.  Did he fire anyone? Did anything change? Did he do even one minor thing to implement this vision that he describes? Hell, no.  He had his chance, even if only for six months and he not only didn’t change anything or implement any new policies, the old guard beaurocrats are now even more entrenched.  The number of identifications/recoveries actually fell on his watch while spending skyrocketed.

Let’s give him credit, he did change one thing.  He ran off all of the family groups who actually advocated for MIA families and replaced them with some good veterans service organizations who can’t spell POW/MIA.  The organization widely credited with creating this out of control agency is even more firmly in control.

Don’t be fooled.  Follow the money.  Count the MIA’s.  Nothing has changed and the mission is to protect the government from embarrassment.  DPAA/DPMO/JPAC is not a friend to MIA families.  Believe only what you see and can confirm.


From: Franken, Michael Thane RADM USN DPAA FO (US)
Sent: Friday, June 19, 2015 12:04 PM
Cc: McKeague, Kelly K Maj Gen USAF DPAA FO (US); Holland, Thomas D (Dr. (ST-SES)) CIV DPAA LAB (US); Fletcher, Kelly E CIV DPAA FO (US)
Subject: Farewell DPAA (U)


Staff:  January 12th of this year we started a journey together.  At that time, I was very much uninformed of this mission.  I now have a passion for it, a commitment to the fallen, and empathy for the families.

No one said applying Secretary Hagel’s guidance in consolidating our three organizations would be easy.  Even if the current annual identification rate doubled, it would take over 100 years to retrieve our presumed recoverable losses.  Consequently, we need to change the manner in which we do operations so that we can achieve an identifiable end for this mission…and this generation of families.   We must collapse stovepipes, share information, and revolutionize the way we do business.  We also need to become a little bit less comfortable in our daily product because comfort with an output stymies future success.  The future is a revamp of our organization to force collaboration throughout the staff and across the accounting enterprise.

DPAA’s future involves managing incongruent data to the successful delivery of accounting information to families.   We must become experts in delivering knowledge-based products, vetting data, organizing others’ activity, and ensuring our family communications are delivered with solemnity.

Policy requirements and strategy will be integral tools for Combatant Commanders’ theater security cooperation plans, embassy country teams, the Department of State, and regional Defense Policy offices.  DPAA will be sought after as an avenue to provide a normalization option for challenging country relationships.

Leadership at all levels will reflect broad and strategic thinking, and the administrative and support apparatus will be seamless across the enterprise.  Internal capabilities will be integrated worldwide, 24/7, under the umbrella of the Pentagon and the Combatant Commands.   Our command center will not be providing over watch of our teams in the field, but rather, organizing efforts of myriad entities–hobbyists, NGOs, VSOs, private citizens, families, academia, businesses, other nation’s DPAA look-alikes, and in rare instances, our field and research work.

The laboratory will be a worldwide center of excellence in remains identification.  Identifications must grow exponentially by ramping up laboratory capability using short-term fellowships, some hires, some contract employees, and even competitive contracts.  We can’t be stodgy in alternatives to our core mission areas.  Others can help.   Urgency is an attribute.

Here are some stretch goals: In three years, all core functions will be enabled by an internal and external facing case management system; DPAA professionals will, to a large degree, oversee the investigative and fieldwork done by others; our spending in public-private partnership and like ventures should better the fully unburdened cost of DPAA organic recoveries.  In five years, large-unit recovery teams will be outdated; field investigations will be done predominantly by like-minded host nation organizations, academia, or volunteers; and DPAA will house a fully cloud-enabled workforce serving to validate cloud-based information inputs from worldwide sources.

In 10 years, the link to our site will be just one page of like-minded organizations with similarly developed capabilities worldwide.  The nation and the world will know that DPAA’s effort, beginning today, is the backbone upon which a worldwide accounting mission is built.

I see DPAA on an ascendency, and with your help, it will be a top ten employer.  Work hard.  Be a professional.  Be part of the solution.  And help everyone in the staff to do the same.  I am honored to have led this endeavor, and I am looking forward to hearing about your future accomplishments.

v/r, mtf.

Rumor Confirmed – The Inmates Are In Control at DPAA

Someone asked me why I am cynical about the Department of Defense’s MIA accounting efforts. After all, they asked, haven’t they reorganized everything? Streamlined the agencies and fired the incompetents?

You might remember it all started in June 2013, when Bob Burns of the Associated Press broke the story that the Government Accountability Office was releasing a scathing report titled:
DOD’s POW/MIA Mission: Top-Level Leadership Attention Needed to Resolve Longstanding Challenges in Accounting for Missing Persons from Past Conflicts

Actually, this report was pretty watered down and didn’t even begin to describe the debacle that the POW/MIA accounting program had become. The whole report could have been summed up by saying that DoD was accounting for less than 75 MIA’s each year, out of over 80,000, and that the cost averaged more than two million dollars each.

On top of the agencies’ already miserable performance, one of the genius wordsmiths they hired to prepare their excuse for not meeting the congressionally mandated targets shot himself in the foot and managed to take down most of the leadership of JPAC and DPMO as well.  Let’s say there was a little explaining to do over that.

But it got some attention on Capital Hill and both House and Senate committees held hearings on August 1, 2013. There was some pretty tough talk that day and the leaders of both DPMO and JPAC were told to clean up their acts.

There was more tough talk a few weeks later when DoD was warned not to retaliate against whistleblowers who brought the problems to light and the Inspector General was requested to investigate.  Letter to DOD OIG Regarding JPAC DPMO Whistleblowers

DoD apparently got the message and figured that since they didn’t intend to change the way they do business, they could change their image so they contracted with an outside public relations firm (who was paid more than $7,500,000) to improve their image on this issue. They also began holding bi-weekly conference calls with organizations representing MIA families. Rumor is that the largest such group, the National League of Families, felt threatened and demanded that other groups be excluded. Whatever the reason, three other groups were removed from the update conference calls. Their seats at the table were taken by such as the Red Cross, Fisher House, Wounded Warriors and other veterans groups with no apparent interest or involvement in the MIA issue.  That showed who was really in charge.

In March of 2014, the Office of the Secretary of Defense, Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation (CAPE) released yet another report critical of the POW/MIA accounting efforts: Organizational Structure Review of the Personnel Accounting Community. Nothing unexpected in this report except that by now the annual budget was up to $193,000,000 for personnel accounting.

In July 2014, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel restated his position that the POW/MIA community needed “Sweeping Changes.”

Soon thereafter, Dr. Thomas D. Holland, Scientific Director & Deputy to the Commander for Central Identification Laboratory Operations, announced that he had been dismissed effective January 1, 2015. Rumor was that his top subordinates would soon follow.  Finally, head(s) were beginning to roll. Not.

In October, 2014, the long awaited Inspector General’s report was published. A draft had been leaked several months earlier and the final report was significantly watered down while it sat on the desk of the Secretary of Defense.  Administrative Readiness – Assessment of the Department of Defense Prisoner of War/Missing in Action Accounting Community

After all these studies and reports it was pretty apparent that something had to be done to keep DoD at least looking like they cared about the MIA issue.  They had delayed as long as possible and people were getting restless.  Obviously, more whitewash was needed.

On January 31, 2015, the two major agencies, JPAC and DPMO were rolled in to a single command, the Defense Personnel Accounting Agency or DPAA. The two star commander of the agency formerly known as JPAC, Kelly McKeague, became Deputy Commander of DPAA.

Johnie Webb, the civilian director of external relations and forty year alumni of JPAC became the Interim Director of Communications for DPAA.

Dr. Tom Holland, the former laboratory Scientific Director and the only man said to have been fired still had a desk in the CIL lab and had yet to miss a paycheck from the agency formerly known as JPAC. His new position is now head of the J9 Section of DPAA where he is designated to be in charge of “3rd Party Programs” ostensibly to garner the assistance of Non Governmental Organizations (NGOs) in the search for MIAs and provide them with cooperation and resources.

Finding someone to head this new and agency was tough. The political appointee who was originally in the position had done his time and gone on to bigger and better things as expected. Over the subsequent two years the office had gone through at least three interim directors.

Retired Lieutenant General Linnington, who headed the search committee, was apparently unsuccessful in finding anyone who met his high standards, so he took the job himself and he becomes the new Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for POW/MIA affairs. That’s dedication.

So, it has taken two years, but they finally have a new name for the agency and a full staff in place – actually it is the old staff and nothing changed.  Of course, the same people who made the mess are still there, no one has been fired and they are ready to hit the ground running, er, well. still doing nothing.  Which is good since the already low number of identifications of MIA’s has fallen even further while things were in the process of being fixed. The number of identifications would probably be a negative number if they had to start from scratch. (Actually, if you count the incorrect identifications, it is a negative number.)

Since General Linnington is another retired military guy with absolutely no experience or training in civilian management or expertise in the mission, he apparently has a plan to do the same things and get different results from an organization that has kept all of its proven management bad apples in functional control.  Hope and change has to work out sooner or later for someone.

To insure that there are no more problems in the future, there is a new crackdown inside the agency formerly known as JPAC to threaten anyone who talks to or who provides information to ANYONE outside JPAC/DPAA.  The people have been told that they will lose their jobs. Apparently, the leadership has taken to heart the demands that someone be fired and they intend to nail the whistleblowers who started this whole thing.  That obviously hasn’t worked out well as the tighter they squeeze, the more the rank and file talk.

With that kind of record, why would anyone be cynical about MIA’s ever being recovered?


The Use of DNA in Identification of Remains – Part II

If you’ve been paying attention, you are now wondering why nuclear DNA is not used to identify WWII era remains.

Here’s a link to one more document you should take a look at. Defense Forensic Enterprise, Assessment and Status Report, Personnel Accounting Extract by the Center for Naval Analyses.  It is available at this link if you don’t mind jumping through some hoops, or a copy is attached.

This 2013 document was prepared essentially to explain why JPAC is unlikely to meet the congressionally mandated goal of identifying 200 MIA’s per year by 2015.  It is an interesting document and details a lot of things JPAC does.

According to this document, JPAC-CIL uses both mtDNA and nucDNA in the identification of human remains.  (page 46)

Elsewhere, it states that “AFDIL performs a limited number of nuclear DNA analyses for the PA mission ….”  (page 35)  I can only speak to the documents provided to my family to prove the identification of a member of my family and thirteen others.  In that case, there was no documented use of nuclear DNA (non Y-STR) testing shown and only a skull and three long bones have been identified to date.

This document restates much of what was said previously about the use of nuclear DNA for identification of remains.

“An individuals nuclear DNA is passed from both parents and can uniquely identify a person. MtDNA is descended exclusively from the maternal line and does not provide an entirely unique profile for each individual. There is significant overlap between inherited mitochondrial sequences across populations.

For instance, one of the most common Caucasian mtDNA sequences occurs in 7.7 percent of that population [66]. Ideally, nuclear DNA analysis would be used to identify recovered remains because it provides a more definitive identification profile, but with current technology, extraction of nuclear DNA from aged, degraded specimens is unreliable.  MtDNA is preserved in bone samples far better than nuclear DNA, and for this reason, the majority of DNA analyses conducted at AFDIL use mtDNA.” (page 46)

So they endorse the use of nuclear DNA, but unlike the rest of the world find it difficult to extract from samples.  Actually, in a recent case which involved several hundred mitochondrial DNA tests, the AFDIL lab was unsuccessful in more than eighty-two percent (82%) of the samples they tested.  This sounds like a lab problem more than a problem with nuclear DNA.

The report continues and provides excuses for not using nuclear DNA:

“DNA analysis is a powerful forensic approach for PA, but it should not be the only method employed. A number of factors can prevent or limit the use of DNA (mtDNA or nuclear DNA) as a lights-out identification method. First, the difficulty of extracting nuclear DNA from aged bone specimens often precludes its use, as mentioned above. Second, an FRS may not be available to perform comparative analysis. An FRS is necessary to use mtDNA to assist in identification and can also be necessary for nuclear DNA when a blood sample from the individual is not available. Third, mtDNA does not provide a unique identification profile for an individual (other unrelated individuals may share the same mtDNA sequence). And last, DNA in a sample may be damaged to such an extent that analysis is ineffective. This is the case with many Korea War remains buried at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific. Forensic procedures, like DNA analysis, should be correlated with other lines of evidence to conclusively identify human remains.” (page 47)

So, why is nuclear DNA not used more by JPAC-CIL?  The only explanation seems to be here:

Within DOD, there have been some suggestions that DNA alone is sufficient for identifications. This singular approach has been taken in certain instances of identification for persons who went missing during the conflict that followed the breakup of the former Yugoslavia. Many of the victims were men of approximately the same age, making non-digital forensic biological profiling difficult. Further- more, remains were often intermingled in mass graves and sometimes moved several times to conceal evidence of massacres [69]. Consequently, in certain instances, efforts to identify missing persons have had to place a disproportionate reliance on DNA due to the inability to apply other forensic lines of evidence. Despite the strength of DNA as evidence (and robust access to FRSs), a singular reliance on DNA as an identifying method has resulted in the successful identification of only a subset of remains [26]. It has been unable to provide the rigorous identification that this sensitive mission requires in all cases. Therefore, multiple lines of evidence should be employed whenever reasonably possible [65].” (page 48

And who came up with this bit of wisdom about relying on a “singular reliance on DNA”? (Endnote) [26] Interview with Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command per-
sonnel. Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, HI. Jul. 2627, 2012.

Nothing to base it upon except this interview with an unnamed person at JPAC-CIL.

The Use of DNA in Identification of Remains – Part I

We hear a lot about the use of DNA in the identification of remains, but see very little documentation of the various claims that are made.  I’d like to share a few things that I have found on the subject and what I have learned in my pursuit of identification of the remains of a family member.  I’m going to do this in multiple messages to keep the size reasonable, but feel free to jump in and comment.

Every TV crime show demonstrates how DNA provides positive identification of the bad guys, but they don’t explain that not all DNA is the same.  You probably already know that mitochondrial or mtDNA is not conclusive proof of a match to a reference sample.  Mitochondrial DNA is “exclusionary ” evidence in that, if done properly, can be used to exclude some individuals – which sometimes still leaves a lot of possibilities.  Y-STR DNA, which is gathered from the paternal line shares these same shortcomings with mtDNA.

Nuclear or nucDNA, (autosomal or non Y-STR) can provide a match to very great levels of certainty.  However, here’s the catch – DoD uses nuclear DNA to  identify remains from current conflicts (recent deaths), but they do not use nuclear DNA to identify remains from past conflicts.  Representatives of Army Casualty have told my family that there are two reasons for this.
1.  They claim that nuclear DNA can not be extracted from aged remains.
2.  They claim that adequate family reference samples can not be found for WWII era remains because they must have a very close relative – parents, children, etc.
3.  They claim that mt DNA is adequate for use with closed populations. (where they know who they are trying to identify).

Just so there is no misunderstanding, below is an email a friend received from Army Casualty and shared with me.  Note the reference to the 1995 report – perhaps this person at Army Casualty had not read the entire report.

“DNA is a very powerful tool and JPAC via the AFDIL has worked with it since the early 1990s when no other major identification operations were using it. JPAC uses DNA testing in the majority of the identifications it makes.

AFDIL performs mitochondrial DNA, autosomal STR (nuclear), and Y-STR (nuclear) testing for JPAC.  It is ideal to have all three test results to resolve a case, but success rates with the nuclear profiles is lower than with mitochondrial. 

The three different tests also have their own requirements for what constitutes an appropriate family reference.  All appropriate family references are not available for all missing persons after so many decades have elapsed. It is important to note that these DNA comparisons do not have the same power as when comparing a person’s DNA to their own reference sample.

Mitochondrial DNA is passed as an exact copy from mother to child, and is thus shared by maternal members of an extended family.  Y-STR’s are passed on the Y-chromosome from father to son and have an inheritance pattern that is mirror-like to the mitochondrial DNA.  Autosomal STR’s are inherited from the mother and father, and so are not exactly like either nor exactly like siblings or other relatives.  Thus, any notion of a “match” would be statistical in nature, and usually expressed as a likelihood ratio (a measure of how good a match it really is).  In sum, none of the DNA test methods available for degraded bone samples at JPAC provide conclusive evidence of identity by themselves.

If two or more can be combined, then the results are more probative. JPAC employs international best practices to make identifications.  JPAC and AFDIL partner to make aggressive use of DNA testing in the identification process.  While we expect to see incremental improvements in the technology going forward, there is no process or test method capable of resolving many JPAC cases that is not already being employed. In 1995, the Defense Science Board Task Force on the use of DNA Technology for the Identification of Ancient Remains reviewed the techniques in use by JPAC’s predecessor and AFDIL.  The Task Force found that JPAC’s and AFDIL’s efforts were supported by sufficient scientific evidence.  Since then, JPAC and AFDIL have continuously worked to improve their capabilities to identify remains using DNA.”

Remember the reference to the 1995 report?  It is actually titled “Report of the Defense Science Board Task Force on The Use of DNA Technology for Identification of Ancient Remains.” Here’s a link to it. It is a pretty good sized document and may take a few moments to download.

Unless you’re having trouble sleeping or you’re really in to learning about the use of DNA, I suggest you use the Acrobat search feature to search for the word nuclear and skim this document.

Remember this report is from twenty years ago and the use of DNA for identification of remains was in its infancy.  Here are just a few recommendations excerpted which show that even twenty years ago the value of nuclear DNA was recognized in this context.

“The Task Force recommends that the AFDIL investigate the potential to perform DNA typing outside the mtDNA control region.”  [nuclear DNA typing] (page 44)

“The Task Force recommends consideration be given to the collection of DNA reference specimens from maternal and paternal family members in case future technology permits nuclear DNA.” testing.  (page 47)

“Although nuclear DNA technology is not currently a viable technology to identify old remains, this technology may become feasible in the future.” (page 99)

That was 1995 and the technology to routinely obtain nuclear DNA from a sample has been available for many years.  Nearly every identification lab in the world now uses it as their primary tool – everywhere except JPAC-CIL and AFDIL.

Want more?  Try this link to a 2009 report titled Strengthening Forensic Science in the United States: A Path Forward by the Committee on Identifying the Needs of the
Forensic Sciences Community, National Research Council

Again, this document will tell you lots more than you really want to know, but the following excerpt seems to sum it up very well.

“With the exception of nuclear DNA analysis, however, no forensic method has been rigorously shown to have the capacity to consistently, and with a high degree of certainty, demonstrate a connection between evidence and a specific individual or source.”  (page 99)

That seems like a very clear endorsement of the use of nuclear DNA, but there is much more.  Stay tuned.


No Man Left Behind – What It Means To The U.S. Government

On August 14, 1948, my Uncle Herman Kelder, wrote to the U.S. Army Quartermaster General and asked that the remains of his Son, Private Arthur H. “Bud” Kelder, be returned for burial at home.

A few weeks later, an Army researcher reported to her superiors that Bud Kelder had been buried in the Cabanatuan Prison Camp cemetery and reinterred in the USAF Cemetery Manila #2. They were then disinterred and stored at the AGRS Mausoleum in Manila.

On August 25, 1948 and again on August 5, 1949, the U.S. Army informed Bud’s parents that there was no evidence that his remains had been recovered. In 1950, the Army issued its final word on the subject and informed Bud’s parents that his remains were non-recoverable.

Grave of Arthur H. "Bud" Kelder, Manila American Cemetery

Grave of Arthur H. “Bud” Kelder, Manila American Cemetery

Army documents in these same files show that fourteen American Servicemembers had died in the Cabanatuan POW Camp on November 19, 1942 and had been buried in Grave 717. After the war, those remains were recovered and four of them were identified and returned to the States for burial by their families. The remaining ten, now known as X-812, X-814, X-815, X-816, X-818, X-820, X-821, X-822, X-813 and X-824 were determined to be “non-recoverable” and buried in the Manila American Cemetery where a total of 953 POW’s from Cabanatuan were buried as Unknowns.

The four identifications from Grave 717 were made possible by comparison with dental records. The military had no dental records for the ten Unknowns. However, if the Army had bothered to ask for dental records, they would have learned that Bud’s older Brother, Herman Kelder, was a dentist and the records were easily available. And review of those dental records showed that Bud had distinctive gold inlays in his teeth and, of the ten Unknowns, only X-816 had gold dental inlays.

These records were presented to the Army in 2010. The family then presented a formal petition for consideration of new evidence which the government promptly lost and later denied receiving. Finally, in October 2010, Bud’s family filed suit in Federal Court, first to obtain the burial records and later demanding that the remains be returned for burial with his family.

After five years of litigation and repeatedly denying that those remains could be identified, the U.S. Government, on January 22, 2015 notified the Court that they had identified the remains of Private Arthur H. Kelder. Bud will be buried with his family in Chicago this summer.

But the story is far from over. It seems that the U.S. Government, the government that claims no man is ever left behind – the government that concealed Bud’s remains from his family for nearly seventy years – wasn’t done, yet.

Fox 9 Reports Kelder and Other Remains Commingled

Missing WWII vet’s remains finally identified, set for proper burial

Posted: Jun 03, 2015 4:01 PM CST Updated: Jun 03, 2015 7:45 PM CST

(KMSP) – The United States Army has given a Shell Lake, Wis. family the news they’ve been hoping to hear for decades: Some of the remains of their lost uncle, who served in WWII, have been recovered. The Fox 9 Investigators first shared the story of Bud Kelder in May.

Bud was a WWII POW who survived the Bataan Death March but died of malnutrition in a Japanese prison camp. A several years ago, his family got a hold of military records that indicated he was buried in a tomb of unknowns in the Philippines.

The family sued the Pentagon to get action and DNA testing confirmed Bud was in that grave. However, the testing also revealed something else that complicates a homecoming. There were bones from other soldiers in Bud’s grave. The Army said it’s likely some of Bud’s skeletal remains were mistakenly placed in the coffins of four other troops who were positively identified and returned to the United States 70 years ago.

In order to fully recover the remains of Private Kelder, the Army must get permission from the other families to open up those graves and turn the remains over to a lab for identification testing.

It is not the ending the family was hoping for but there is comfort in knowing that at long last Kelder will be laid to rest in the country he gave his life for.

“It’s been a long, long fight, five years in court, and I’m just glad to see it come to an end so we can give my uncle a proper burial,” said Bud’s nephew, Doug Kelder.