The Pentagon is considering a new, more expansive way to use DNA in hopes of identifying the remains of thousands of American soldiers who were killed as long ago as World War II, the Insider reported on Tuesday.
Timothy McMahon, the director of the Defense Department’s DNA Operations, which oversees the labs that identify American soldiers missing or unaccounted for from past and current wars, said “these remains have been out in the environment for 70-plus years or have been chemically treated prior to burial,” which makes them very different than what is done with typical current-day losses.
McMahon said the goal is to “take what Ancestry.com and 23andMe have brought to the table to assist with cold cases in your state and local crime labs, and transition that, modernize it, and we have to optimize it to work with very, very damaged DNA.”
He explained that up until now, “if we look at the paternal line, if this missing service member had a brother and the brother is dead, but had a daughter, that daughter cannot be utilized to assist with the identification of the missing service member, because it’s a paternal niece.”
But McMahon stressed that “under the new testing that we’re looking to optimize using these single nucleotide polymorphisms, we can utilize that daughter now as a viable reference to identify that missing service member.”
He also said that “through DNA technology, the constant evolution of new methods and the ability to open up more and more references” it will be easier to identify remains, but that there will always be a stumbling block of finding records for everyone.
Megan Smolenyak, one of the genealogists the Defense Department relies on to find relatives of soldiers unaccounted for from past wars for the past two decades, told the Insider that there is a special problem in trying to identify the remains of African american soldiers.
“Once you get back past a certain point, what genealogists refer to as the wall of 1870, and we call it that because the 1870 census is the first census in which formerly enslaved individuals finally show up under their own names, and full names, with surnames,” Smolenyak said.
She explained that “up until that point, it’s about the same as anybody else. But once you hit that point, then you start hitting obstacles. Unfortunately, those who are enslaved were treated like property. And so, you have to try to identify who the enslaver was and then dig into their paper trail anything that puts their property.”
Smolenyak said it is very “uncomfortable research because – I don’t care how long you’ve been doing it – you never get accustomed to seeing individuals mixed in with livestock and crops and furniture. That’s what happens in the estate records of these people.”
She stressed that the solution to this problem is to be persistent.
“You need to just keep on dealing with the records that you can find, but you have to know what those records are,” Smolenyak said. “And it is gradually becoming easier. Many probate records, many estate records in different states have been digitized and indexed and put online over the years.”
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