DNA may help military end era of unknown soldiers
Combat boots stand empty before the altar, a rifle behind each pair.
In the Fort Drum chapel, in upstate New York, families and comrades fill the pews.
The chaplain calls the roll. Memories of missing men respond with a grave, complicated silence.
Barbara Ann Broyles listens to the name of her father, Lt. Col. Don Carlos Faith Jr., echo in the chapel.
She was 4 1⁄2 years old when Faith died east of the Chosin Reservoir in Korea in 1950. The scattered, retreating remnants of his troops left behind his body.
More than 83,000 service members lost since the beginning of World War II remain missing, according to the Defense Department. Many lie in forgotten battlefield graves and beneath memorials of solemn anonymity.
But advancing techniques and DNA technology mean the United States might have buried its last unknown soldier. In offices and laboratories across the country and archaeological sites scattered across continents, teams of investigators and scientists comb the past for the country's lost defenders.
Half a world away from her father's final battlefield, Broyles grew up, married and had three children. She made a home in Baton Rouge. She watched America's relationship with North Korea deteriorate, and her hope for her father's recovery faded.
Then in late September, the phone rang. Retired Air Force Maj. Michael Mee wanted to meet with her.
They'd found him, he said.
Two military agencies — the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command, based in Honolulu, and the Defense Prisoner of War/Missing Personnel Office, based in Arlington, Va. — keep a case file on every missing soldier, sailor, airman and Marine, said retired Lt. Col. William Woodier, 66, a DPMO researcher.
“We don't ever quit,” Woodier said. He covers the Chosin Reservoir area, where hundreds of soldiers and Marines went missing during 10 days of fighting.
Among veterans Woodier interviewed were men who carried Faith, mortally wounded, to his jeep after he led an assault on Chinese blocking his battalion's retreat.
Woodier retired in May 2006, but the memory of a missing friend from another war binds him to the task at DPMO. Corpsman Mike Laporte, a fellow reconnaissance Marine, disappeared during a parachute drop into South Vietnam on Sept. 5, 1967.
Woodier said he intends to stay at DPMO until Laporte comes home or “somebody finds me face-down at my desk, I guess.”
“There are way too many people still waiting for their loved ones to come home,” Woodier said. “My corpsman is still missing.”
The Korean War was Faith's second. He parachuted into Normandy, Sicily and the Ardennes during World War II, and played poker with Russian soldiers at the Brandenburg Gate. Gen. Omar Bradley gave his wife and daughter the Medal of Honor he earned for leadership along the banks of Chosin Reservoir, where a surprise Chinese attack cut down hundreds of soldiers.
Broyles, 66, recalls difficult conversations with survivors who wanted to tell her how her father died.
One remembered lying among battered, exhausted troops in a medical tent when Faith walked in. Using a rifle as a crutch, he asked them to push a little farther.
“I need you,” he told them.
The veteran said they would have followed her father “to hell and back.”
“But, of course, they had,” Broyles said, “except not back.”
Low on ammunition, with hundreds wounded, Faith tried to lead a retreat through entrenched Chinese troops, according to an Army history. Of 3,500 men who pushed north with Faith days earlier, about 385 remained fit for combat, said JPAC historian Michael Dolski.
A U.S. airstrike meant to aid them dropped napalm on the convoy's lead element.
“All he could do was yell, and say, ‘Follow me.' And he led, and they followed him,” Broyles said.
Researchers at JPAC and DPMO identify likely sites of remains. An archaeological team visited North Korea in 2004 and found skeletal remains of 30 people jumbled in a mass grave near Chosin Reservoir.
They shipped the bones to Honolulu, where JPAC operates the largest accredited skeletal forensics laboratory in the world, said Debra Prince Zinni, a forensic anthropologist who helped identify Faith's remains.
She uses bones to determine gender, age and ancestry, and to look for identifying marks. That takes about two weeks, but a backlog of requests at the DNA lab delays test results by as much as a year. The difficulty of piecing together DNA from decades-old remains can add more time. Sometimes, the first sample isn't enough and the process starts anew.
Then researchers try to match analyzed samples with DNA samples taken from thousands of family members. They identified 80 people last year.
A few days after Mee called in September, Broyles' family gathered at her house. Mee arrived with two military officers and a thick briefing book containing hundreds of pages of peer-reviewed forensic studies, DNA analysis, witness accounts of the battle, and other evidence collected during decades of searching — even a letter Broyles' mother wrote to the Army in the 1950s about her husband's death.
Their meeting lasted for six hours, Broyles said.
“The object, as I look back on it, was to present to us all the information in such a way that we could be comfortable in saying that, despite all odds, that's my father. They've found him,” Broyles said.
In April, Broyles and her family stood on the tarmac at Ronald Reagan International Airport when the jet from Hawaii landed. Nearly 800 aircraft take off and land from the airport each day, but as the honor guard carried Faith's flag-draped casket from the plane, “you couldn't see anyone moving,” Broyles said.
“They all stopped.”
She asked officers at Arlington National Cemetery, where Faith's parents are buried, for an open-casket service, a rare request for partial remains.
“It just seems like a box is just a box,” she told them. “He's here. I want it clear that he's here.”
The undertakers wrapped his bones in a white shroud and wrapped the shroud in an Army blanket. Atop the blanket they laid his folded uniform. The casket remained open.
The U.S. Army Band and honor guard led the procession to his hilltop grave, marching beneath trees frosted green with the early blooms. Seven horses drew the black caisson carrying Faith's coffin. Broyles led the family and friends who followed.
“They actually did it. ... They found him,” she said. “None of his brothers are alive. None of his parents are alive. His wife died a long time ago. (But) they didn't forget. They found him and brought him back.”
Mike Wereschagin is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7900 or firstname.lastname@example.org.