Department of Defense
Recovery and Identification of Remains
The following updated DoD policy on recovery and identification of remains was posted
to the Defense POW-Missing Personnel website in late May 2000; I do not know when it was
approved. This policy is similar to the process that I describe in my article on
identification and is essentially the process that was in place when I retired. The policy
can also be found on the DPMO website at this URL: http://www.dtic.mil/dpmo/faq/policies.htm
-- when you go to that page, click on the link to "Recovery and Identification of
Remains of Missing Personnel."
DEPARTMENT OF DEFENSE POLICY REGARDING
THE RECOVERY AND IDENTIFICATION OF
REMAINS OF MISSING PERSONNEL
The goal of the Department of Defense (DoD) is to achieve the fullest possible accounting
for all personnel lost as the result of hostile action while serving the United States.
This policy sets forth procedures for the recovery and identification of remains of
personnel missing as a result of hostile action. The policy also outlines procedures to
distinguish those individuals for whom identifiable remains cannot be recovered.
Recovery and Identification of Remains
In the event the missing person has died, the United
States government strives to recover and identify the missing person's remains. The
U.S. Army Central Identification Laboratory, Hawaii (CILHI) is tasked with this mission.
Identifications fall into two broad categories.
Identifications relying on unique physical characteristics to establish identity.
These unique physical characteristics include: fingerprints, radiographic
comparisons(especially dental), DNA, and visual identification. Due to the skeletal nature
of many remains recovered from past wars, dental radiographic comparisons are the most
common means of positive identification employed.
Identifications relying on lines of evidence other than unique physical
characteristics to establish identity. These lines of evidence can be extensive and
commonly include the results of: skeletal (anthropological) analysis, dental analysis,
mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) analysis, incident (e.g., crash site) analysis, and artifact
analysis, in addition to eyewitness accounts and circumstantial evidence. Given the amount
and condition of remains often recovered from remote areas of loss and the time that often
has elapsed since the loss incident, these lines of evidence assume an important role in
the identifications made by the CILHI. Specific criteria used for such identifications may
a. A demonstrable chain of custody: Remains must be accounted for from the time
they are recovered by the United States through their final disposition.
b. Biological consistency with the known characteristics of the individual concerned
and the circumstances of loss: An example would be a
recovered bone fragment from an adult male that shows signs of traumatic fracture; such
would be consistent with a missing pilot known to have been in an aircraft crash.
c. Supporting material evidence: Recovered artifacts, such as personal effects or
aircraft wreckage that support the identification.
d. Supporting historical documents: United States records of the loss incident,
battlefields, last-known positions, etc., support the identification.
e. Eyewitness accounts: Eyewitness accounts by surviving members of a mission
and/or by enemy or indigenous personnel that are supportive in nature and could not have
been derived from information previously supplied by any U.S. official.
f. Circumstances that place a particular person in a particular place at a particular
time: Circumstances, analysis of material and information combine to reliably link the
individual whose remains are being identified with the location and date of loss.
g. Lack of contradictory evidence: No compelling evidence contradicts the results
of comprehensive laboratory analysis and reliable circumstantial evidence that support the
When completed, the CILHI Identification Report on either category
of identification must be presented to the Person Authorized to Direct
Disposition (PADD) for the missing person. The PADD has the right to appeal the
identification to the Armed Forces Identification Review Board (AFIRB), and in exceptional
circumstances, as directed by the Director, DPMO, the PADD shall be afforded the
opportunity to submit remains for private mtDNA testing only when the U.S. Government has
used mtDNA testing as part of its identification and additional testing will not wholly
consume the remains.
Compelling Evidence that remains are not recoverable
The circumstances of loss (e.g., high-speed jet aircraft crash, over
water, explosion), time that has elapsed since the loss incident, changes to the terrain
feature, lack of eyewitnesses, and the harsh effects of the environment may make it
impossible to recover the remains of missing personnel. DoD analysts review such cases to
determine whether the available evidence provides proof that the missing individual's
remains cannot be recovered. After thorough analytic review, if remains are determined to
be non-recoverable, the Director, Defense POW/Missing Personnel Office (DPMO) will direct
no further pursuit of such cases. DPMO shall forward notification to the PADD that active
efforts to resolve the case will cease. In the event that new information becomes
available to indicate remains might be recoverable, active efforts to resolve the case
will be resumed.
Robert L. Jones
Deputy Assistant secretary of Defense
(POW/Missing Personnel Affairs)