Offutt Air Force Base lab helps to identify remains of fallen service members

A laboratory at Offutt Air Force Base is helping to identify remains of fallen service members.
Published: Apr. 4, 2023 at 6:53 PM CDT
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OMAHA, Neb. (WOWT) - Draped in the colors they gave their lives to defend, these unidentified service members are finally home.

Nine cases of remains from World War II Europe now receive the honor and respect all fallen service members deserve.

Offutt’s Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, or DPAA Laboratory is one of only two labs in the country. The other is located in Hawaii, both charged with the mission to investigate, recover and identify fallen service members.

Right now, investigators are working through evidence found from a plane crash in Germany during World War II -- everything from boots to oxygen masks, even wedding rings.

“Material evidence is incredibly useful both in the field and as it’s being recovered,” said Dr. Franklin Damann with Offutt’s DAAP lab. “It can help direct the location of an archeological recovery because it’s the personnel we’re looking for, not parts of the aircraft.”

The work to identify fallen service members can take anywhere from a few months to several years. One of the challenges investigators face is the lack of DNA samples from family members of those still unaccounted for.

“In the olden days, it used to be blood,” said Fern Sumpter Winbush, DAAP’s principal deputy director. “Now it’s a simple cheek swab. That swab is collected, tested, and we hold onto the DNA sequence, so as remains come into the laboratory, we have the ability to cut those remains and send them off to the Armed Forces DNA Identification Laboratory.”

Still, with the evidence and remains, DAAP labs are able to identify an average of 200 service members a year.

“It’s not the number, those are two families that are going to receive answers,” Winbush said.

Military officials tell 6 News all the work going into finding and researching tables of evidence is all about keeping a promise.

“So we need to put action to the words ‘Never leave a fallen comrade behind’.”

Today’s is the first of four flights to arrive at Offutt this year, and the first honorable ceremony since Offutt’s runway reopened last September.