OMAHA, Nebraska — Tucked inside a huge former aircraft hangar at Offutt Air Force Base in Omaha is a laboratory, which looks like something from CSI. This lab is the Defense POW-MIA Accounting Agency.
“DPA’S mission is to account for our missing personnel to their families and our nation,” said Dr. Carrie Brown, who directs the lab.
A visitor to the lab is greeted with a somber site upon entering the main work area of the lab.
“What I think upon walking to the lab I think of course you have many, many tables, we have over 80 tables of evidence with human remains,” said Brown. “I think the most poignant thing is if you’re visualizing how the remains are laid out, once we have solve the (identity) mystery one person will actually lay the remains in a specific way, head to toe, so that if they were to sit up symbolically the first thing they would see is the American flag, on American soil.”
She leads a team of people from a variety of disciplines to try to take bones, and artifacts, and determine who the soldier might be, so the remains can be returned to family members.
“It is an overwhelming amount of work for the sacred mission,” said Brown. “At any given time here at our facility we had about 1,000 active cases ongoing, so we’re constantly moving through cases and finding the bits of evidence that will get us to that identification.”
Brown is a trained anthropologist. She works to compare bones, and artifacts found at crash sites, or on the battle field. Every little piece may be a clue, from the bones, to a ring, or sometimes even a wallet is found.
“We have a lot of disciplines, I speak from the anthropology perspective,” said Brown. “We also have in our laboratory forensic dentists, also called odontologists, and dental hygienist. We have an entire team of historians, some of which are also a Nebraskan.”
Sometimes the work can be hard, there is often not much to go on, if the dog tags were removed when the soldier died.
“These aren’t easy cases, there’s a reason in many instances why service members have not been identified from World War II,” said Brown. “They only get harder as we work through all of them, we need all the different ideas coming to the table.”
The lab recently concluded a project on the USS Oklahoma. In that work the body of an Iowa sailor was identified. Bert Eugene McKeeman, of Council Bluffs was aboard the USS Oklahoma, when it was bombed in Pearl Harbor. His remains were buried in a cemetery in Council Bluffs.
“We were very successful that project, able to identify 362 sailors and marines in a period really concentrated over about six years, so heavily co-mingled, lots of bones, mixed together,” said Brown.
The huge former airplane hangar location of the lab, holds a bit of a historic twist to the work. The USS Oklahoma had the first casualties of WWII for the US. Then the Enola Gay, a B-29 aircraft, that dropped a bomb on Hiroshima was built in the same warehouse where the lab is now located.
“We come to work every day renewed with the fact that today is maybe the day we get another service member home to their family,” said Brown.