Casualty Data Analysis: At the Forefront of MIA Cases
Widener, Robert, VFW Magazine
Mining a vast array of military records is a crucial first step in determining MIA missions.
Tall, slender archival boxes, all neatly labeled, sit solemnly on shelves at the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command (IPAC) in Hawaii. Inside the boxes are folders, each with its own story about a soldier, or perhaps an airman. They contain personal medical data, letters from a wife or father, and sometimes even a photo. As different as each story may be, they all have one thing in common-the person was reported missing in action in one of America's wars.
To the analysts and historians within the casualty data analysis section at JPAC, the files are a treasure trove. Much like historical detectives, the staff turns to these files and a multitude of military records to determine two main factors in the overall MIA accounting process: the feasibility of sending out an investigation team, and providing historical and scientific background to help identify remains.
Lt. Col. Dale Norris, a 21-year Air Force and Persian Gulf War veteran, heads the casualty data staff. Assisting Norris is Deputy Director Rob Richeson, a retired Air Force master sergeant who started with Joint Task Force-Full Accounting in 1993.
Because of the varied nature of each war, staff researchers are specialists on different wars. The section has three divisions-Southeast Asia, which is concerned primarily with the Vietnam War; the Korean War; and worldwide, which includes WWI, WWII, the Cold War and other operations, even some dating back to the Civil War.
"Most of our people are involved in Southeast Asia," Richeson explained. "That's in line with the strategy coming from Washington. There is a requirement to investigate and to come to some resolution for every one of the guys unaccounted for."
In Southeast Asia, cases rely more on field investigative work where teams visit suspected crash or battle sites. Here, team personnel have the opportunity to conduct interviews with eyewitnesses who may have been children at the time of the incident.
Worldwide cases turn to historical records analysis due to the lack of such firsthand accounts. Only in a few cases have veterans contacted analysts with vital information about a buddy who was missing during a battle.
Sometimes information can come from unusual sources. For example, amateur relic hunters in Europe who plunder WWII battle sites for profitable artifacts have stepped forward in the past to cooperate and disclose their findings.
According to historian Heather Harris, whose specialty is the Korean War, they receive a number of leads each day. "Not all information leads to a case, but all of the discoveries have to be checked out" she said.
Regardless of the source, a "discovery" is where new cases begin at JPAC. The find sends the analysts and historians mining their resources, hopefully, to uncover the "who, what or when" in order to warrant further action.
IDPFs Are Indispensable
Military personnel records top the list of reference materials used by the casualty data researchers. Unfortunately, the 1973 fire at the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis, Mo., destroyed 80% of the 22 million records for Army personnel discharged between Nov. 1,1912, and Jan. 1, 1960. Also destroyed were about 75% of the records for Army Air Forces and Air Force personnel discharged between Sept. 25, 1947, and Jan 1, 1964.
Lacking that resource, utmost in the analyst's arsenal is individual deceased personnel files (IDPFs)-information compiled on every military person during his or her service dating back to WWI. The files, regardless of what branch the person served in, are housed at the Washington National Records Center in Suitland, Md. The Army holds executive oversight of them due to its role in the graves registration process during WWII.
"IDPF files are the single most complete document for us," said Harris, "in terms of combining information about the individual that we need for identification, with information about the way in which they were killed. …