DOVER AIR FORCE BASE, Del. --
Armed Forces Medical Examiner System personnel returned to Alaska in June to begin the inventory process on remains found on Colony Glacier.
“The medical examiners visited Alaska to conduct an inventory of remains found, to confirm what we are receiving and also, we have an idea of the number of cases we are going to have when they arrive at Dover Air Force Base,” said U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. (Dr.) Alice Briones, AFMES deputy director and medical examiner. “It also allows us to know how many may be identified by fingerprint, or fingerprint and DNA for a self-reference or how many may be identified by bone versus teeth.”
Air Force Mortuary Affairs Operations and the services career field are in charge of the recovery process while AFMES identifies the missing service members, according to Briones.
AFMES investigators were also involved in the recovery efforts on Colony Glacier.
“We were embedded with the recovery team on Colony Glacier to serve as the subject matter expert on human remains and advise the team on search and recovery,” said Carlos Colon, AFMES medicolegal death investigator. “It’s their mission, they are in charge of the actual recovery and we served as advisors to them.”
Following the inventory at the 673rd Medical Group at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska, a dignified carry for the remains was conducted by the JBER Honor Guard and 673rd MDG personnel before being escorted to Dover Air Force Base, Delaware, where AFMES could begin the process of identifying the remains.
“Once the remains arrive here, we separate everything and begin to examine them for possible identifications,” said U.S. Navy Cmdr. (Dr.) Sherry Jilinski, AFMES medical examiner. “The next step we do is radiography to help us identify tissue to sample for DNA for the purpose of identification.”
Some remains have the potential to be fingerprinted for possible identification. The Federal Bureau of Investigation conducts the fingerprinting processes.
“I soak the remains in a solution to rehydrate the skin,” said Bryan Thomas Johnson, FBI major incident program manager. “As it rehydrates, it fills the fingertips back up with fluid so we can print the dermal layer.”
In the 1950s, officers had a full ten print card because they had background checks on them, said Johnson.
“Our hope is to get any prints of the remains because we never know,” said Johnson. “Certain officers only had right hand fingerprints taken depending what branch they were in, while the other services only took a right thumb print.”
Another challenge for Johnson, was the National Records Archive fire in 1978. Records from J down and H down were destroyed, said Johnson.
“Some records were salvaged, but I have one record that isn’t usable,” said Johnson. “You can see the char marks or the water damage where they caught it and saved it, but the corner with the thumb print is gone.”
Samples that can be submitted for possible DNA identification, are transferred to the current day operations in DoD DNA Operations.
“We will sample all remains, including soft tissue for possible DNA,” said Jilinski. “We have had better results with bone and teeth samples, so they are sampled first.”
Once in the laboratory, the DNA is removed, or extracted, from the cells using two different methods depending on the size of the sample.
“The size of the sample is taken into consideration so that the entire sample isn’t used” said Ursula Zipperer, AFMES DNA Operations laboratory casework administration and evidence manager. “This allows us to return the sample back to the families so they can have their loved one back.”
Detergent is used to break open the cells so the DNA can be removed and then isolated from other cellular material. The extracted DNA is used to generate a genetic profile which is compared to other profiles to identify the missing individual.
“It’s humbling to be out there, knowing these family members have been waiting so long to receive their loved one and I take pride in this mission,” said Colon. “Working with human remains and service members is something I do every day, but this mission is so unique and special because it’s a chance for us to work closely with AFMAO and all our joint partners to bring these service members home. It’s really fulfilling.”