No More Unknown Soliders – Military uses DNA

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It’s not Eddie here”

Kin say military gave them wrong body for burial in ’69

By Electa Draper 
     
LEFT: Thomas Martinez holds a photo of his brother, Eddie A. Martinez Jr., who was serving in Vietnam in 1969. The family does not believe a grave in Belen, N.M., holds Eddie s remains. The Army disagrees.     
 
Belen, N.M. – U.S. Army mortuary officials say they have gone beyond the call of duty to assure a New Mexico family that the remains of a soldier sent home to them from Vietnam in 1969 belong to Eddie A. Martinez Jr.

The Martinez family has insisted for decades that it’s the wrong body, a stranger’s body, buried under a marker bearing Eddie’s name in his hometown of Belen, south of Albuquerque.

“It’s not Eddie here. I think Eddie could still be alive,” his brother, Thomas, says at the gravesite days before Memorial Day, a holiday that reminds the family of the horror of its situation.

     

The Army says fingerprint and dental records prove the body given to the family was Eddie Martinez. The family paid for private DNA testing in 2002 that indicated it was not.

“We’ve proved it’s not Eddie,” says his sister, Mary Jane Silva. “Now the Army should have to prove their claim that it is him.”

Army spokeswoman Shari Lawrence says that because of its warrior ethos of “no soldier left behind,” the United States goes to greater lengths than any other nation to recover, identify and inter its war dead.

“It’s not something we take lightly,” she says. “It’s a huge operation. Other nations can’t afford to do this.”

In 2003, the military established the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command in Hawaii to “achieve the fullest possible accounting of all Americans missing as a result of our nation’s previous conflicts.”

Yet a number of bereaved families don’t trust the military to get it right.

“It’s not just a few isolated cases,” says Lynn O’Shea, research director with the National Alliance of Families for the Return of America’s Missing Servicemen. And the number of families still struggling to get answers and documents about wartime deaths is likely in the hundreds.

“This is not a battle we thought we’d be fighting all these years later,” says Joyce Ussery, of Norwood, Mo., the widow of Vietnam soldier Carl Ussery. “The families deserve the truth. If it’s remains, they want the right remains. Or they want the release of documents.”

The Army told her that her husband was killed in a helicopter crash, but the story changed many times over the decades.

In 1996, Ussery had the charred remains exhumed so a forensic anthropologist could compare the teeth with Carl’s dental records.

“It isn’t him,” she says.

The U.S. MILITARY HAS 4.3 MILLION DNA SAMPLES ON FILE 

DNA testing became an identification tool for the U.S. military during the Persian Gulf War in 1991. By October 1992, all personnel entering the Army had to provide DNA specimens, and soon after all branches initiated specimen collections.
The military has acquired 4.3 million samples for its reference library, says James Canik, from the Armed Forces DNA Identification Laboratory in Rockville, Md. He says that since Sept. 11, 2001, the library has been accessed in 2,000 cases.

The lab’s goal is “to ensure the United States would never again have to entomb the remains of an unknown American among the Unknowns in Arlington National Cemetery.”

In 1998, using mitochondrial DNA technologies it pioneered, the lab identified the remains of the “Vietnam Unknown” as 1st Lt. Michael Blassie, an Air Force pilot from St. Louis.

In October 2003, the military established the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command, or JPAC, located on the island of Oahu in Hawaii. Its mission is “to achieve the fullest possible accounting of all Americans missing as a result of our nation’s previous conflicts.”
 
 
Army insists the records are a match and won’t perform further tests, Ussery says.

The Usserys and the Martinezes are among many families asking for DNA testing of old remains – of unknowns who might be their loved ones.

For the military, the potential caseload is staggering.

Each war has its missing and unidentified: World War II, more than 78,000, of which 35,000 are deemed recoverable; Korea, more than 8,100; Southeast Asia, 2,100; the Cold War, 120; and one American is still missing from the Persian Gulf War of 1991.

The families’ alliance says that the goal of the government is not to resolve cases of misidentified or missing remains but to make them disappear.

“Instead of burying remains, they are burying cases,” the alliance states in its online newsletter.

The Armed Forces Institute of Pathology says that “the accurate and timely identification of servicemembers from the Vietnam era is a sensitive and emotional issue for the nation.

“The Department of Defense recognizes the importance of ensuring the fullest possible accounting of missing personnel and that all remains are accurately identified.”

The Martinez family has had the body in Eddie’s grave exhumed and examined four times to gain enough evidence for the Army to accept that it made a mistake.
The body that Elizabeth Martinez, 79, first viewed in 1969 at the mortuary looked nothing like her son, she says.

The corpse’s eyes were brown. Eddie’s eyes were green. The remains seemed to be that of a shorter, heavier and older man. The scars were different. The hands were too small. Eddie was movie-star handsome. This man was not.

The Army says the 20-year-old private, sitting in his barracks at Camp Radcliff near Plei Ku, shot himself in the chest with an M-16.

Eddie, his mother says, would never have killed himself on Feb. 10, her birthday. He had only 75 days left in his 12-month tour of duty.

The Army returned few personal effects with the body it said was Eddie’s. There were no dog tags or clothes. There was a wallet, empty except for a just-issued driver’s license. The Army also sent a man’s wedding ring. Eddie wasn’t married.

“Legally, we have an identification,” says Army mortuary affairs specialist Johnny Johnson. “We know it’s Eddie.”

The Martinez family paid for its own mitochondrial DNA testing in 2002, performed on hair taken from the body during one of the several autopsies. A private lab found the hair did not belong to anyone related to Elizabeth Martinez.

Suzanne Barritt, a supervisor with the Armed Forces DNA Identification Laboratory’s mitochondrial division, says the results were inconclusive because, among other things, the lab did not repeat them. It could have been a false positive because of contamination.

Silva says that additional DNA tests could put to rest the question and the remains. Army officials agreed to such testing in September.

But, Silva says, that meeting was followed by months of the Army’s silence. Then, in April and May, she received letters setting out new conditions and a deadline for her acceptance of them, which passed last week.

One of the conditions was that the body be shipped to a military lab in Delaware, where the Army would control not only its samples but a second set for a private lab picked by Silva.

Silva says that under this arrangement the Army could falsify results. She couldn’t agree to it, she says.

“I just wanted completely independent tests. They had agreed to do that.”

Lawrence says she understands the difficulty the family has had accepting Eddie’s death.”They have to be angry with somebody,” she says. “They can’t be angry with him, so they’re angry with us. We can shoulder that.”

Story Courtesy of the Denver Post

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