The wheeled cafeteria-style tables are neatly lined up in white-tiled rooms, ready to hold the skulls and teeth and bone fragments that are often the only remaining evidence of America's long-missing warriors.
The tables are part of a new $5 million forensics laboratory, officially opened Monday at Offutt Air Force Base.
The lab is a satellite of the Hawaii-based Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command. The command, known across the military as JPAC, is responsible for identifying the remains of the missing dead from past wars. Now scientists will study and identify those remains here, too.
“The solemn promise to account for our fallen heroes is being strengthened,” said Maj. Gen. Kelly McKeague, JPAC commander.
The 27,000-square-foot forensics lab sits in a walled-off section of the former Martin Bomber plant at Offutt. The sophisticated equipment in those white rooms will allow the identification of bones and teeth as well as DNA and other analysis of human remains.
Fourteen people already are at work in the lab, according to the command, but that number is expected to rise to about 50 by 2016.
The additional lab space will help the command meet a congressionally mandated goal of increasing identifications to 200 a year by 2015, up from about 80, said Johnie Webb, the deputy JPAC commander.
Webb said field crews are racing against time to identify the missing from World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War, particularly those lost in air crashes in Southeast Asia. About 83,000 service members remain missing from those conflicts.
“Because of the acidic soil (in Southeast Asia), remains are deteriorating very quickly,” he said. “In some cases, all we're able to recover is teeth.”
The command's main office and most of its 500-person staff will remain in Hawaii, where a new 136,000-square-foot headquarters is under construction.
After thoroughly investigating tips and reports of crash sites, the command dispatches teams of archeologists, forensics experts and military service members to typically remote locations. The command even allows families to follow those searches through Facebook, Twitter and other social media.
In one case, a Nebraska family accompanied a team to the recovery site.
“They dug through the crash site and put the dirt through quarter-inch mesh,” said Kay Hughes of Geneva, who visited the site in Austria where her uncle's plane crashed during World War II. She later wrote about the experience in a memoir, “Searching for Stanley.”
Hughes attended Monday's opening with her parents, Harold and Darlene Dwyer of Hastings, Neb., who spent decades wondering what happened to Stanley Dwyer, an aspiring radio broadcaster whose plane disappeared May 10, 1944. Harold Dwyer said his mother and father would never hold a memorial service for Stanley. They died without knowing what happened to him.
“They kind of expected him to walk in the door,” he said. “We didn't really have closure till we've been through this process.”
The family finally held services on the 60th anniversary of Stanley Dwyer's disappearance.
Military leaders said one of the perks of having the lab in Nebraska is that the command will most likely be able to keep some workers who can't afford the expensive Hawaii lifestyle.
“Being here in Omaha makes it easier for our members to buy a home … and be closer to their families on the mainland,” McKeague said. The command also anticipates partnerships with researchers at Creighton University and the University of Nebraska at Omaha, another factor that helped Offutt land the facility.
Having the lab here also will make it easier for many families of MIA service members who have grown close to the command's staff. Shirley Haase of Omaha spent years making annual visits to Hawaii with other POW/MIA family members for progress reports on the search for her brother, Spc. Don Grella, of Laurel, Neb. His helicopter disappeared in Vietnam on Dec. 28, 1965. A command team recovered his remains, and he was buried next to his parents in Laurel in 2009.
Haase said it's of great comfort to have a place to visit her brother and to know the story of his final flight.
“We never had any idea what happened to him,” she said. “Now we know exactly where they crashed and that they probably died right at the scene.”
Haase said POW/MIA families are grateful that a JPAC facility is on the mainland. Not everyone can afford the trips to Hawaii.
“It's exciting,” said Haase, who also attended the opening. “I think Omaha is really lucky to have this here.”
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