A new lab where scientists will identify the remains of long-missing American troops is scheduled to open at Offutt Air Force Base early next year.
The forensics lab will serve as a satellite laboratory for the famed Joint POW-MIA Accounting Command, whose workers have long traveled to South Korea, Vietnam and other former war zones to find and then identify the bodies of missing American service members.
The accounting command also coordinates with other military groups that give information — and hopefully closure — to families of soldiers, airmen, Marines and sailors who long ago went missing in action and never returned.
“No other nation does this to the size and the scope we do,” said Maj. Phillip Ulmer, the command's director of public affairs, during a visit to Omaha last week. “I've been in the Air Force for 23 years, and nothing has been as rewarding as this.”
The new lab, which could open sometime in early 2013, is taking shape inside a historic building: The old Martin bomber plant at Offutt Air Force Base, where many World War II planes were built before flying into that war. The lab eventually will cover 27,000 square feet inside the old bomber plant, Ulmer said.
When the $5 million lab is ready, some 50 anthropologists and other staff will study the skeletal remains found in former war zones and use DNA testing and other forensic methods to identify the bodies. Similar work will continue at the accounting command's main laboratory, which is in Hawaii.
The Offutt lab's creation stems from a congressional mandate that the accounting command intensify its efforts to bring home the remains of troops.
The command is now supposed to identify 200 missing troops each year by 2015, according to Ulmer. That's more than double the number of troops the command identified last year.
To meet that mandate, the Joint POW-MIA Accounting Command is putting more recovery teams in the field. In October, the command had 104 researchers spread across the globe searching for the remains of long-lost service members.
As those researchers recover more remains, the command will need more lab space. Hence the new Offutt location, Ulmer said.
The newest tenant at Offutt is small in size but generally receives a large amount of good publicity. The Joint POW-MIA Accounting Command often gets headlines when it identifies a Vietnam or Korean War soldier and returns him to his family.
In 2009, the family of one long-missing Nebraska soldier, Sgt. Jim O'Brien, praised the accounting command after its researchers and scientists worked for a decade to return O'Brien home.
O'Brien went missing and was presumed dead in North Korea in 1950. It wasn't until 1998, during a brief thaw in U.S.-North Korean relations, that U.S. investigators allowed into the country found what they thought may be O'Brien's remains buried on the bank of the Chongchon River.
The command's forensic researchers positively identified O'Brien using a DNA sample that matched the DNA of one of his living relatives.
O'Brien was given a full military burial in 2008. Nearly 100 Korean War veterans showed up at the funeral to salute him.
“I'm at a loss for words,” said Gregory O'Brien, a Lincoln resident and Jim's nephew, after the funeral. “It's just all so unbelievable that I don't know what to say.”
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