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News & Stories
News | June 13, 2024

DPAA and MAKRI host Third Indo-Pacific Scientific Summit in Seoul, ROK

By Staff Sgt Blake Gonzalez

The Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA) and the Ministry of National Defense Agency for KIA Recovery and Identification (MAKRI) hosted the third Indo-Pacific Scientific Summit in Seoul, Republic of Korea, June 10-14, 2024.

With over 60 participants from 11 different countries in attendance, the summit invited experts in forensic anthropology, DNA analysis, and isotope testing, to share and discuss the innovations and insights impacting the scientific community on an international scale. The event also sought to foster cooperation between partner nations with the hope of contributing to and improving the forensic methods used to identify missing POW/MIAs.

“This year is our third meeting of this type for the Asia-Pacific region, and this is the largest participation we’ve had so far,” said Dr. John Byrd, DPAA laboratory director. “The reason we have this summit is because there are many missing POW/MIAs that need to be found. If we want to be able to reach a closure on these cases, we need to bring the best scientific work to the game that we can. That’s really what this summit is about.”

The summit also allowed DPAA and MAKRI to demonstrate the benefits of international cooperation, through which the identification goals of both organizations are not only recognized but shared.

“I think we are performing the same national mission and obligation to return the people who sacrificed themselves for their home country,” said Keun-Won Lee, MAKRI director. “We have a lot of expertise in the field of forensic identification here, and I believe that the gathering of this expertise can bring fruitful results for all of us.”

By creating a space to share knowledge and discuss realistic areas for improvement, DPAA and MAKRI enabled various experts to provide information on some of the scientific community’s most important topics. This included the integration of DNA analysis in the identification process and its integral use in making challenging identifications.

“Primarily, our work revolves around DNA cases where direct reference samples are not often available,” said Dr. Suni Edson, Armed Forces Medical Examiner System’s-Armed Forces DNA Identification Laboratory Past Accounting section assistant technical leader. “Remains are often fragmented or commingled, so your sampling of the remains depends on the age of the remains, their condition, what specific remains are available, and several other factors. The other things that need consideration are what DNA technology you are using and what DNA extraction methods you have validated. What we’ve learned from years of being able to process samples is that you can’t ever have just one method.”

Another hot topic was the incorporation of isotope testing in identification processes, which uses bone collagen to determine the diets of deceased individuals. This, in turn, can help forensic scientists build a biological profile before DNA testing even begins.

“There are three major goals that DPAA targets with isotope testing,” said Dr. Gregory Berg, DPAA Case Coordination DNA laboratory manager. “We try to determine if remains are from a United States individual or from someone else, we see if we can separate commingled remains, and then within the United States, we want to try and determine what someone’s home of origin could be. When we have little or no background information on a set of remains, doing DNA analysis can be time-consuming and costly. We can use isotope testing to get a better idea of what needs to be sent for DNA testing. We can get values very quickly and classify them before pursuing further follow-on testing.”

Dr. Denise To, DPAA scientific recovery expert and archaeological field sciences laboratory manager, reviews forensic scientists’ field recovery operation packages at the end of missions. She, along with other presenters, concluded the event with briefings on field recovery operations, and the importance of their success to positive identifications.

“We may all be in different countries, but we all do very similar work,” said To. “The processes and problems that we face as forensic scientists are generally the same. We’ve spent the last few days talking about laboratory analysis, but that’s not where the science begins. Under even the most extreme field conditions, our DPAA scientists are expected to uphold the highest levels of scientific integrity. We’re expecting the scientists to follow set procedures for collecting data and processing evidence. We excavate sites the same way we would a modern-day forensic crime scene. By using these practices, our archaeology can stand up in a court of law, and we can use it as a line of evidence to make an identification.”

It’s through collaborative efforts like these that DPAA fosters strong and productive partnerships. These collaborations are vital to pursuing joint field activities and successfully recovering and identifying possible POW/MIAs.

“What we’re doing with these missing persons missions is a humanitarian effort,” said Byrd. “It’s done for purely humanitarian reasons. In order to solve all these cases, we all have to work together and cooperate with one another. We call many of these countries host nations, where they allow us to come into their country and look for our missing people. We are eternally grateful to them. If we can all learn from each other, we’ll all be better equipped to pursue these cases.”

This summit is one of many events DPAA hosts to foster innovation and collaboration between forensic scientists and partner nations. The moral imperative to provide the fullest possible accounting of our missing personnel to their families and the nation encourages DPAA to apply new and improved forensic methods while continually fostering a spirit of innovation throughout the organization.

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Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency PAO
Washington, D.C.
2300 Defense Pentagon
Attn: Outreach and Communications
Washington, D.C. 20301-2300