MIA Facts Site

Department of Defense
Policy on
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."


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 include:

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 identification.

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)