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EVEN FOR LAB, IDENTIFYING DEAD IS DAUNTING

SHARE EVEN FOR LAB, IDENTIFYING DEAD IS DAUNTING

There was no 21-gun salute for the military men whose remains are spread on the 21 tables in the Army's Central Identification Laboratory here.

Each had to lose both his life and his identity to get here. The chances their remains will leave the lab are best if they had fillings in their teeth or a Sears credit card in their wallet.Fillings are the best link between the unidentified remains in the lab and the stacks of files in the next room that catalog personal and medical information about military personnel whose status is "missing." As for the credit card, Sears was one of the few companies issuing plastic credit cards in the early 1960s. Searchers have found on numerous occasions that the plastic Sears cards found among the personal effects of the deceased were readable when other identifying documents were not, said Lt. Col. Cliff Kirk, director of the lab's external affairs.

A good example is a box of remains the Vietnamese government returned in 1992. The box contained numerous bones, boots, socks, a .45-caliber automatic, a survival rifle, a multi-language distress banner, a faded military identification card and a Sears card.

A serial number on the .45 and the Sears card and a plastic-laminated military identification card quickly linked the box with the crew of a light bomber that disappeared in 1963.

Kirk lifted the tarnished .45 off one of the tables, pulled the slide back and snapped the trigger. "It still works," he said. That and the relatively good condition of other items indicated the remains did not stay for years at the crash site. "This stuff was stored somewhere. There is no way the paper documents could have remained so intact over that time out in the bush."

Whether the Vietnamese government has warehoused American remains and parceled them back as political bargaining chips is an ongoing suspicion that dates back to 1973.

Records linking the remains to the crew of the bomber show the aircraft had an American pilot, co-pilot and crew chief and possibly a South Vietnamese officer on board when it disappeared.

The box contained no complete skeletons - just a collection of mingled bones. So a lengthy process of separating and identifying the bones began.

Dental work helped identify one piece of a jawbone. Families of the missing crew were notified of the find and asked to provide blood samples, which have been used to make DNA matches with the bones.

The positively identified remains will soon be returned to the families. The remaining bones will be interred together. All of the names will be listed on the headstone, or will be individually excluded if a family objects.

Most of the remains being recovered from the field amount to small fragments only. "All of the easy sites have been done. We're down to the hard sites," Kirk said.

About 40 bone fragments, none bigger than a nickel, and one tooth are spread across another table in the lab. They were found at the site where a single-seater aircraft crashed. The tooth had a filling that was matched to a dental X-ray in the file of a missing pilot.

"There is no reason to believe anyone else was there," so all of the nickel-size fragments will be returned to the pilot's family. "If nothing else, the family will receive all that we have."

Hundreds of sets of bone fragments remain at the lab still unidentified. "We never say `that's it.' " said Lt. Col. Johnie E. Webb, the lab's deputy commander.

DNA has been an identifying tool for only the past several years. "You never know when technology is going to change."

Remains from Southeast Asia are the lab's priority. But it is still receiving remains from the Korean War and World War II.

Many of the World War II remains come from Papua, New Guinea, where 350 American aircraft were lost during that war.

Unlike crash sites in Vietnam, where the wreckage is salvaged by villagers, superstition keeps villagers away from the New Guinea crash sites. So remains there are often found largely intact - some still inside the aircraft wreckage, which makes investigations there good training for new search crew members.