The agency holds technical, or consultative, talks with many different countries in a typical year. Generally, we present our requested schedule of investigations and operations in a given host country. We may show them which specific cases we're working on, and why it's important that we visit a certain area at a certain time of the year. We talk about logistics and how we plan to move our teams in-country, and the kind of support we would need from them at the national, provincial, or local levels.
Many factors are related to how recovery sites are prioritized. Weather, terrain challenges, site accessibility, and various logistical and operational concerns help determine the planning and staging of recoveries. The agency is also required to routinely carry out technical negotiations and talks with representatives of foreign governments in order to ensure positive and safe in-country conditions for today's agency service members.
As you can imagine, these efforts do not happen overnight. The agency makes every effort to reach sites in jeopardy as soon as possible, and that too is a factor in prioritization. Some sites are in danger of being lost due to urbanization, and/or environmental, regulatory, or political issues beyond the control of the agency.
We have one Research and Investigation Team (RIT) comprised of 10-14 members who are primarily analysts and linguists. Their job is to research archives in the host nation (museums; government archives; etc); investigate any leads in Last Known Alive cases (still our number one priority); and obtain the oral history from host-nation military and governmental officials that may have broad information about a particular region or battle. They can develop 30-40 new leads through these means.
The agency can also form investigative teams (IT) consisting of four to nine members with specialized skills (team leader, analysts, linguist, medic, and sometimes anthropologists). Their job is to follow up on the leads of the RIT through interviewing potential witnesses, conducting on-site reconnaissance, and surveying terrain for safety and logistical concerns. Their goal is to obtain enough information to correlate or connect a particular site with an MIA. Their findings and recommendations determine what will be scheduled for recovery.
We have 23 recovery teams (RT) including one underwater and one mountaineering team and will increase each year until 2015. Each team consists of 10-14 people comprised of a forensic anthropologist, team leader and sergeant, linguist, medic, life support technician, communications technician, forensic photographer, explosive ordnance disposal technician, and mortuary affairs specialists. Recovery teams use standard field archaeology methods in the excavation as directed by the on-site anthropologist.
DoD will protect the names and addresses of family members from release. In specific cases where the family member gives written authorization, DoD may release name and address information.
At Family Update meetings, family members receive the option to provide a written statement to release their personal information to fellow attendees. DoD facilitates this release of information to help the families build a network of support.
Once we have an ID, we notify the appropriate service's Casualty Assistance Office. These offices are responsible for notifying the family and making logistics and burial arrangements. They also assist us by searching for families when there are none on record and/or soliciting family for the mtDNA samples we may need.
Typically, the SCO has had contact for years with the primary next of kin on cases that are being worked by agency investigators. When the agency finishes an investigation or an excavation, all of our field work is summarized in an after-action report.
A copy of that report is forwarded to the SCO, which gives it to the family. The Department of Defense works hard to keep family members fully informed, and let them know what the next steps might be with regards to their particular case, even if it's months or years ahead.
Once the agency completes an identification in its laboratory, we prepare an extensive set of briefing materials and send them to the Service Casualty Office (SCO, the service of the missing person). Then, that SCO contacts the family to let them know an identification has been made.
They will schedule a convenient time to come to the families' home and brief them on the entire case. Often, the primary next of kin invite other family members to be present so all can get the same information at the same time. The mortuary officer will have studied the case extensively before he/she visits with the family in order to best respond to any questions that might be asked by the family. If the family accepts the identification, their next decision is how the remains should be buried.
The mortuary officer will have several options available, including burial in a hometown cemetery, in a national cemetery, or burial at Arlington National Cemetery near Washington D.C. Of course, the military pays for all expenses associated with the transportation and burial of the remains. Though there are minor differences among the services, in general they also pay for two family members to fly to the location of the selected burial site, as well as for hotel expenses during the period of the funeral.
Many months (and often years) of planning and research go into a site before the actual excavation begins. An excavation cannot begin until we think we have pinpointed the possible location of an MIA or MIAs.
Here’s how the process works: researchers and historians will examine host nation archives (museums, government archives, etc.); investigate any leads in Last Known Alive cases (still our number one priority); and obtain oral histories from host-nation military and governmental officials that may have broad information about a particular region or battle. Investigative Teams (IT) will follow up on leads through interviewing potential witnesses, conducting on-site reconnaissance, and surveying terrain for safety and logistical concerns.
Their goal is to obtain enough information to correlate a particular site with an MIA. Again, if they don’t find evidence, then the process will continue until a point in the future when enough evidence is gathered to recommend an excavation. Once a recovery is approved, recovery teams (RT) will be scheduled to enter a country to conduct a forensic archaeological recovery to find the remains of an MIA or MIAs. An agency forensic anthropologist on the recovery team designates the sites that will be excavated based on information provided from previous investigations.
Team members carefully sift through tons of soil by digging and screening plots of dirt in hopes of uncovering clues to the missing. Missions can last from approximately 30-65 days, with teams digging eight to 10 hours daily. Many factors can contribute to the length of time it takes to complete an excavation of a particular site. Sometimes, the recovery team finds nothing at a site. When this happens, the agency must return to the investigation phase in the hopes of pinpointing the actual location of a site (even if the initial investigation pointed to a particular location, sometimes the excavation team can find no further evidence).
Other times, it takes more than one trip to complete an excavation (which size-wise can range from an individual burial site to an aircraft crash that spans a football field-sized area). Since the teams only have a set time period in which to work, often they have to suspend the excavation of the site until they return. Sometimes they can go back on the next scheduled mission (we try to do this whenever possible – our priority is to close sites where we have already begun excavation), but sometimes we can’t go back immediately (due to weather conditions, other scheduled missions that need excavating and are already coordinated and planned for the fiscal year, etc.) The bottom line is that it can take months to years to completely excavate a site.