DNA: bringing them home

Where DNA, the military and genealogy meet

Yesterday morning, in a broad sun-lit corridor inside the Pentagon building just outside Washington, D.C., the past and the present met… and breathed a deep sigh of appreciation and satisfaction.

POW-MIAThe Legal Genealogist and several family members were being treated to a tour of the control hub of American’s military might by a friend and fellow genealogist, a retired military officer who is now a senior civilian at the Department of Defense.

We had seen the views from the various entrances, and the stunningly simple and moving tribute to all those who died in the attack on the Pentagon on September 11, 2001.

We had walked the long hallway with displays of Marine Corps memorabilia,1 and spent time reviewing the Army uniforms from the Revolutionary War to the present.2

We had spoken in hushed tones in the solemn room set aside to honor those few exceedingly brave individuals who have won this nation’s highest honor for valor, the Medal of Honor, and in more hushed tones in the room set aside to honor those killed in the 9/11 attack.

We had watched Douglas MacArthur and Omar Bradley grow from boys to men to old age and then die without ever really fading away in American memory, what MacArthur told the Congress in his farewell address notwithstanding.3

We’d seen the food court and the shopping mall and considered the wisdom of turning the ramp to the Metro into a water slide.

And then… and then… there was that corridor. It honors those who went to war for the United States and who didn’t come home… or didn’t come home as an individual with a name. Those that circumstances left behind. Those that scientific methods could not put a name to.

Those who — today — are coming home, with identities intact.

And for that, we can thank this trio of DNA, the military, and genealogy, the end results of which are showcased and displayed in that corridor.

Because now, in this 21st century, DNA from living family members can be compared to the DNA extracted from those fragments previously recovered and still being found on battlefields and ricefields and the jungles of previous wars.

One particular type of DNA — mitochondrial DNA or mtDNA — persists the longest in these bone fragments. That’s why, for example, it was mtDNA that was used in part to identify the remains found in Leicester, England, as those of King Richard III.4 And that’s why it’s being used today to help identify military remains and repatriate them — bring them home — to their families. (Edit: It’s probably the most commonly used, but not the only type used. See the comment posted by Dee Dee King, CG.)

But to be able to use DNA effectively in this task, somebody has to find living family members whose DNA can be used for comparison. This isn’t as easy a task as it might seem — and that’s where the genealogists come in.

Remember how mtDNA is passed down: it goes from a mother to her children (so all brothers and sisters born to the same mother will have the same mtDNA), but only her daughters can pass it on to their children.5

So who can you test for remains you suspect to be those of service member like these, who still need to be identified and brought home?

It can’t be the serviceman’s children: they would have their mother’s mtDNA, not the mtDNA of their father. For the same reason, it can’t be the children of a brother of the serviceman: they too would have their mother’s mtDNA, not the mtDNA their own father shared with the serviceman.

No, the people who need to be located are those few in any family tree who have an unbroken female line of descent from a common female ancestor of the serviceman. A brother or sister would work perfectly — except for the cases where there were no siblings or where all the siblings have died.

The search then goes on to children of sisters or grandchildren of sisters whose mothers were the serviceman’s nieces. And if no-one can be found in those categories, the search goes back to the serviceman’s mother’s sisters and their female descendants. And then to the serviceman’s mother’s mother’s sisters and their female descendants, and so forth.

It’s a task that genealogists are uniquely suited to… and a task our community has risen to in a big way. People like Catherine Becker Wiest Desmarais, CG, in Vermont. Megan Smolenyak Smolenyak in New Jersey. Dee Dee King, CG, in Texas. And so many more.

So if anyone ever asks you… what good is genealogy anyway? Think about that sun-filled corridor in the Pentagon — and the soldiers, sailors and airmen coming home with names and faces and identities.

If anyone ever asks you… why would any genealogists ever need immediate access to the Social Security Death Index? Think about that sun-filled corridor in the Pentagon — and the fact that putting names and faces and identities to those remains requires finding people alive to test today in groups that dwindle with every passing day and every family death.

And if anyone ever asks you… what good is DNA anyway? Think about every single image of every single face displayed in that Pentagon corridor, of every family that has been able to say welcome home to a loved one, to put an end to the “what happened to…” questions, to have closure, to begin the healing.

DNA, the military, and genealogy. A meeting place we can be proud of.


  1. A must-see item since my brother Bill is a retired Marine Corps officer.
  2. My youngest nephew was distinctly impressed — albeit not in a positive way — by the zouave uniforms of the New York volunteers from the Civil War. See “Zouave uniform,” Soldiering, Smithsonian Institution (http://www.civilwar.si.edu : accessed 22 Feb 2013).
  3. “Old soldiers never die, they just fade away.” See “General Douglas MacArthur, Farewell Address to Congress delivered 19 April 1951,” American Rhetoric: Top 100 Speeches (http://www.americanrhetoric.com : accessed 22 Feb 2014).
  4. See Judy G. Russell, “Rewriting history through DNA,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 3 Feb 2013 (http://www.legalgenealogist.com/blog : accessed 22 Feb 2014). See also ibid., “And the answer is…,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 4 Feb 2013.
  5. ISOGG Wiki (http://www.isogg.org/wiki), “Mitochondrial DNA tests,” rev. 7 Dec 2013.
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12 Responses to DNA: bringing them home

  1. Dee Dee King says:

    Just a point to update. When I started working with Navy in 2009, yDNA had been recently added to mtDNA as a source. The military repatriation labs have been world leaders in developing new and better techniques, or improving upon those discovered by others. The labs have added autosomal DNA to the mix. However, I’ve been told that mtDNA remains the most reliable, especially in cases of very old remains in bad conditions.

    Thanks, Judy, for this nice post!

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      (a) Thank YOU for the work you do.

      (b) It does read as though I meant mtDNA was the only type used — what I intended to convey was that it’s the most commonly used type particularly for older cases. Thanks for the clarification.

  2. Chris Kramer says:

    Thanks for the post Judy.

    As a Marine (albeit an ancient one) and a home genealogy buff, I appreciate the topic.

    Hope to see you again at this years SCGS Jamboree.

    Chris Kramer

  3. This is the best thing I’ve read today. Thank you for this perspective. Very well written. I’m definitely sharing this.

  4. A moving explanation of what we military repatriation case workers do! Thank you, Judy!

  5. Magnificent post!!! The goosebumps have not subsided. What a wonderful service these genealogists provide! I can’t imagine more rewarding work.

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      I can’t imagine it either, Diane, and can’t imagine doing it. I would be in tears 24/7 doing this sort of thing.

  6. Louise Hanson says:

    Thank you so much for this wonderful, thought-provoking post. And also, thanky you, thank you, thank you, to all the wonderful and generous people who are working tirelessly to bring our loved ones home and helping to fill the holes of loss in our hearts. Blessings to all.

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      There are a LOT of genealogists who have done and are doing very good work in this area, Louise. I can’t begin to name them all — those I mentioned, my friends and colleagues Polly Fitzgerald Kimmitt, CG, Diane L. Giannini, CG, the whole team at the American History Company led by Therese Fisher, AG — I could go on all day and probably still leave people out. Thank heavens for all the folks who do this.

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