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How the Army identifies, brings home the remains of thousands of MIAs, including an Ohio soldier

This picture shows a rainbow over the National Cemetery of the Pacific.
U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs
Rainbow over the National Cemetery of the Pacific, known as the Punchbowl, in Honolulu, Hawaii.

The remains of Billy Debord, a Korean War soldier from Ohio missing in action for 73 years, were recently identified.

He was finally laid to rest in his hometown of Miamisburg this past Veteran’s Day, surrounded by family members who had waited so long for him to come home.

But DeBord's family isn't the only one waiting for their loved ones to be found — tens of thousands of service members from America's wars abroad are still missing.

Greg Gardner is a branch chief in the U.S. Army Human Resource Command’s Casualty and Mortuary Affairs Division. In this interview with WYSO's Jerry Kenney, he talks about the history and scope of the identification program. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Greg Gardner: The mission actually started right after Vietnam, and it started with the Vietnam conflict. It was during President Reagan's presidency when that started. And then subsequently, the Korean War became a part of the mission. And then in 2010, World War II became part of the mission. Congress is the one that has given us the requirement for those. We have done identifications following the wars where remains were presented, but the department was not actively looking for these service members. It was different in the sense that, for example, someone in France was working in their field and they dug up some remains. While we dealt with it, we tried to identify them and obviously buried them.

But now what the department is doing is actively, systematically going after every case of unaccounted for service members. And the only ones that we're not actively pursuing are the ones that we know were lost at sea. So, for example, the Army has about 400 service members that went down aboard troop ships in the middle of the Pacific, middle of the Atlantic Ocean — we're not going to be able to recover those remains. We know that. So (who) we're going after are those ones that we consider a possibility.

Jerry Kenney: That’s a lot logistically. How do you organize that operation?

Gardner: We have two primary roles, and we split those between prior to the identification of a service member and after the identification of a service member. So prior to identification, we work with the families, we work with the Defense POW/MIA Army Accounting Agency, the Armed Forces medical examiner. And our primary role is getting DNA from the families to support that identification of the service member. We also are reaching out to the families. We do that monthly, at various events around the country.

We'll pick a city, draw a circle around it about 250 miles, and then invite all of the families we have contact with, and then we update them on their case, along with, the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency analysts and historians. Then after an identification, I have mortuary officers that actually go out and brief the family, and then we start the mortuary process. We work directly with the casualty assistance centers that the Army has around the country. Each service has essentially the same thing. We all do it slightly differently. But we do the same, we work with the families all the way through interment. We provide a casualty assistance officer from that local area and then support the families all the way through interment, just like a current death case. 

Kenney: Can you give us an idea of the scope of the remains that still need to be identified? And how do you zero in on that 250-mile radius to start looking for family members?

Gardner: Certainly. The Department of Defense is the one that maintains the list of the unaccounted for from World War II, Korea and Vietnam. They do that because each service has service members that are still unaccounted for. The Army has the vast majority that are what we call feasible. The Navy has a large number as well, but many of those are buried at sea. So they're not actively pursuing those cases. The Army has for World War II, we have 19,979 from the Army Air Force, because we're still responsible for the Army Air Force, and we have 16,600 ground forces. So those are unaccounted for from World War II. That is by far the largest number. Now, as a comparison, the Department of Defense has 72,137. And all these numbers has an "as of" date, obviously, because they're identifying people all the time. Every week we get several identifications.

In Korea, the Army has 5,680 unaccounted for, and we're the vast majority of those, the Department (of Defense) has 7,485. So again, in Korea, it's mostly Army.

And then in Vietnam it's just the opposite. The Army has 509 cases, the Department (of Defense) has 1,578. A lot of the Marine, Navy and Air Force losses in Vietnam are pilots, obviously, that were lost. And most of the Army cases that we have were either Special Forces that were in Laos, Cambodia, parts of Vietnam that we didn't control. And so again (it’s) hard to recover remains in those circumstances.

Jerry Kenney: At the heart of your efforts are the families who want their loved ones home. What's it like when you make that first contact to tell a family that their loved one has been identified?

Greg Gardner: It's the reason probably many of us continue doing what we're doing. The families, for the most part — all families are different, we have the full spectrum of families — but families for the most part, it's something that they have been wondering about since the war. And even if they weren't personally involved, their mother, grandmother, father, grandfather, those individuals talked about it, and it was always that, that issue of, "What happened? We don't really know what happened. The Army just told us they're gone. We can't find them. And that's all we've heard." So it really does — I don't like the word closure, per se. I'm not sure that's really the right term, but certainly for families, knowing what happened and the fact that we now can inter that individual and honor what their immediate family relatives at the time were not able to do, is really important for most families.

Jerry began volunteering at WYSO in 1991 and hosting Sunday night's Alpha Rhythms in 1992. He joined the YSO staff in 2007 as Morning Edition Host, then All Things Considered. He's hosted Sunday morning's WYSO Weekend since 2008 and produced several radio dramas and specials . In 2009 Jerry received the Best Feature award from Public Radio News Directors Inc., and was named the 2023 winner of the Ohio Associated Press Media Editors Best Anchor/News Host award. His current, heart-felt projects include the occasional series Bulletin Board Diaries, which focuses on local, old-school advertisers and small business owners. He has also returned as the co-host Alpha Rhythms.