Military DNA files may end era of 'unknown soldier'

January 12, 1992|By New York Times News Service

WASHINGTON -- The Defense Department said yesterday that it would establish a repository of genetic information on all U.S. armed service members as a new way of identifying future war casualties.

Samples of DNA, the basic material of heredity, will be obtained from blood and oral swabs. The samples will be added to existing fingerprint, dental and other records to produce a more comprehensive way of identifying the remains of war dead, said the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology, which proposed the initiative.

"The establishment of this repository may very well mean that we will no longer have an 'unknown soldier' from future battle casualties," said Maj. Victor Weedn of the Army, chief of the institute's Armed Forces DNA Identification Laboratory.

Virtually every cell in the body contains the entire genetic blueprint of a person in the form of DNA, or deoxyribonucleic acid, and the arrangement of this material gives each person a unique genetic fingerprint that could be used for identification.

The military identification system, comparing the DNA from unidentified combat dead with the DNA in samples in the repository, would allow positive identification of the casualties even when only partial remains are recovered.

DNA identification was used in the Persian Gulf war, Major Weedn said, but the system would have been even more useful if there had been a repository of file information on all military personnel.

Major Weedn said that the repository would contain a preserved blood sample and epithelial cells obtained by swab from the mouth of every member of the military.

A few drops of dried blood on filter paper would be put on individualized cards that also contain a fingerprint, a signature and a bar code with an identification number.

One card and the oral swab would be stored in a refrigerated central repository here, and another card would be kept with each service person's medical records, he said.

"The individualized cards will be stored in a vacuum-sealed package and frozen," Major Weedn said.

"This should preserve the integrity of the specimen for the career lifetime of the service member."

Major Weedn said that each specimen would be treated "as medical specimen with confidentiality and respect" and that testing would only be authorized for identification of human remains resulting from a military conflict or a mass disaster, such as an airplane crash.

The samples will not be available for testing for other purposes, such as identifying those suspected of criminal activity or in paternity cases, unless subpoenaed by court order, he said.

Details of the identification program, including location of the central repository and when to start collecting samples, will be worked out in coming months by representatives of all the services, he said.

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