DNA is now military's ID of choice Cost, accuracy, speed win praise

July 19, 1993|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,Staff Writer

Inside a lab at the U.S. Naval Academy, technicians are working to eliminate an age-old military problem: the unknown soldier.

Medical personnel are taking blood and tissue samples from midshipmen to extract DNA, the genetic fingerprint that can make a 100-percent positive identification of those killed in action.

DNA, or deoxyribonucleic acid, is the cell material that carries genetic information and is unique to the individual, sort of a biological Social Security number. DNA can be taken from partial remains on the battlefield, where the current methods of identification -- dental records and fingerprints -- would prove worthless.

"There's not a better system in the world for positive identification. It will solve a lot of problems," said Lt. Cmdr. Michael A. Weaver, in charge of the Naval Medical Clinic in Annapolis, which is processing the midshipmen samples.

And positive identification is "important to the individual soldier. It's important to the family," said Lt. Col. Victor W. Weedn, chief of the Armed Forces DNA Identification Laboratory, a forensic pathologist who came up with the idea of a military DNA repository.

Last fall, some 2,000 midshipmen from the classes of 1993 and 1994 were among the first Navy personnel to undergo the process at a lab in Bancroft Hall. Each October, the academy's junior class will offer blood and tissue samples during their pre-commissioning physical.

The work in Annapolis is part of the U.S. military effort to take samples from all active duty and reserve military -- about 3 million service members -- by 2001. Those specimens, taken at more than two dozen locations around the country, from induction centers to military academies to officer training schools, will be stored at a Defense Department warehouse in Gaithersburg. They'll be kept in file cabinets and walk-in freezers until they are needed to identify remains.

The collections started in June 1992 at Fort Knox, Ky., with 82 Army inductees. The number of collections has swelled to more than 121,000 military personnel, with another 1,500 samples coming in daily.

"We're trying to eliminate the unknown soldier, that's what we're really striving to do," said James Stavinoha, director of the Defense Department's DNA repository at the Armed Forces Institute for Pathology in Washington, D.C.

Seven milliliters of blood and a scraping from the insides of the mouth are taken from each service member. The blood is smeared in small circles on two pieces of filter paper that also contain the service member's fingerprint, signature and a bar code. One piece of paper stays with the service member's medical records, while the other is shipped to the pathology institute for storage, along with a test tube containing the scraping, or buccal smear.

"Large-scale identification has always been difficult for us," said James J. Canik, administrator of the DNA lab at the pathology institute. "When you have one or two people is not so bad. But what happens when you have large numbers?"

That question has long perplexed the military. During the Civil War, some soldiers bought their own metal tags and had their names scratched on, in hopes their remains would be found and returned home.

In 1906, the War Department started paying for what became known as dog tags, the method of identification in World Wars I and II. By the Vietnam War, military officials relied mostly on thumbprints.

Thousands of soldiers from 20th-century warfare remain unknown. The military is still trying to identify about 100 cases of remains of soldiers killed in Vietnam.

The military continues to use fingerprints, although dental records are the primary method of identification of those killed in action.

But such records can be blurry and unusable, said officials at the pathology institute. Some 30 percent of military personnel have no fingerprints on file, since they were discarded as unacceptable. And new photos of a soldier's teeth are needed every two or three years to reflect any dental work.

"Your DNA doesn't change," Mr. Stavinoha explained. "We only have to do this once and it's good forever."

Moreover, dental and fingerprint records are useless if only a portion of a soldier's remains are recovered. "On today's battlefield, you're going to see more incineration and more fragmentation," said Colonel Weedn, noting that technology has created more powerful guns and bombs. "It's a more lethal battlefield."

Pathology institute officials say the registry is also a cost saver. The sampling for DNA costs $3 per person, about the same as one dental photo. Less time would be needed to make a positive identification.

Colonel Weedn began pressing Pentagon officials to use DNA as a tool for identification in 1989, three years after law enforcement officials started to use it. Pentagon approval was received in December 1991.

In the midst of his lobbying for a DNA registry, Iraq invaded Kuwait.

The subsequent Persian Gulf War provided the first battlefield use of DNA identification -- and also the first American war without an unknown soldier.

The ability to extract DNA from nearly 3 million people has troubled some, including the American Civil Liberties Union, which fears the information could be used for other purposes, such as criminal cases. But Colonel Weedn said the samples federal privacy laws and, absent a court order, will be used only for identification of those killed in the line of duty.

"It makes sense to me. I think it's a good idea," said Ensign Michael Schneider of Annapolis, a 1993 Academy graduate and among the first midshipmen to provide samples.

Blood and tissue specimens on file include those of Commander Weaver. The father of two daughters, he said the ability to positively identify a fallen soldier offers something invaluable to service members and their families: "peace of mind."

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