There are thousands of graves the world over for fallen Americans who died on the battlefield of war, graves that have no headstone denoting the identity of the remains therein.
They are unknown soldiers.
In many cases, it needn’t be that way any longer.
DNA analysis can yield a unique genomic fingerprint that can reliably confirm the identity of those lost souls. All it takes is a sample from a blood relative for comparison.
That process of comparison can require sleuthing and, often, leads to a dead end. Relatives can’t be found.
There is another way.
The U.S. Defense Department can work backward. Instead of finding relatives then matching the DNA, military researchers can use the DNA of the fallen soldiers to find the relatives.
It is a tack that has been used by police to solve cold cases in recent years, a method that is possible due to the rising popularity of public genetic databases to which citizens submit DNA samples.
The barrier to widespread and long-overdue identification of those who gave their all: a policy change.
Currently, the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, an agency of the Department of Defense and a lead entity in IDing efforts, does not allow a body to be exhumed unless there is a better than 50 percent chance of identifying the remains following exhumation. There is burgeoning support for a rethink of this protocol. The current system is costly and ineffective. Only some 200 identifications are made annually by an agency with an annual budget of about $150 million.
The alternative is to obtain the DNA samples from every unknown soldier and begin running them through the DNA databases.
To disturb the final resting place of thousands is to break with Western cultural norms, it is true. But naming our buried soldiers also is a moral imperative that is equally compelling.
Policy should be changed to make use of science’s broad reach. Protocols can and should be developed to ensure the dignified and solemn collection of DNA from Americans who gave the last full measure of devotion to their country and their country’s causes. It is time to etch a name on the headstones of our fallen soldiers.
— Pittsburgh Post-Gazette