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My first husband, Capt. Jerry Zimmer, was an F4B Phantom jet pilot, whose aircraft was shot down on August 29, 1969, approximately 20 miles South of Da Nang, Vietnam, after six months in country. Neither Jerry nor his navigator, 1st Lt. Al Graf, was able to eject, before the aircraft crashed into the Que Son Mountains. Initially Jerry and Al were classified as Killed in Action/No Body Recovered (KIA/NBR). Years later, both Marines were listed as MIA, along with other service members whose bodies were never recovered.

Jerry has been gone nearly a half century, and hope for recovering his remains had run out a long time ago.  However, in recent years our family became involved with the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command (JPAC), now merged with the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA), and learned that Jerry’s and Al’s remains might, in fact, be recoverable, so we are doing everything possible to support their efforts to make this happen and bring our guys home where they belong.

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MIA RECOVERIES IN VIETNAM: DNA TO THE RESCUE

Friday, April 22, 2011 @ 08:04 PM  posted by Elaine Zimmer Davis

Jerry's son, Craig, kneels before his father's memorial stone, during the 40th Memorial Service in Arlington Nat'l Cemetery, 8/20/2009
Jerry’s and my son, Craig, was two and a half years old when his father was killed in Vietnam. He hopes that his dad’s remains still can be found when JPAC continues excavating Jerry’s and Al’s site. If found, Craig knows that DNA will likely be a key factor in helping to identfiy the remains. (This photo was taken at Jerry’s 40th Memorial Service in Arlington Nat’l Cemetery, at the site of his father’s Memorial Stone.)

Some of the most difficult battles can ultimately produce the sweetest victories. In the case of Vietnam, it took nearly two decades after our departure in 1973, to figure out how America and Vietnam could form a partnership, beneficial to both sides. We wanted our POW/MIA issues to be resolved, since we had left behind 2,646 unaccounted-for Marines, soldiers and personnel in Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and China — 90% were located in Vietnam. The Vietnamese wanted money in the form of reparations and a trade agreement, etc., with the United States. Neither side got everything it wanted, but both eventually got enough for a quasi win-win situation.

Unlike post-WWII recovery efforts (after winning), which were launched immediately following the war and resulted in the identification of more than 270,000 MIAs, the lapses in Vietnam’s post-war recovery program (after losing) required that the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command (JPAC) and its predecessors use every tool available in the field and in the laboratory to produce even a modest number of identifications.

The new enemy in Vietnam had no guns, but nonetheless its acidic soil, monsoon rains and scavenger culture were rapidly destroying our MIAs remains. The situation was unlike anything our government had encountered in past wars and some of those conditions may have hurt efforts in the early 1990s to locate Jerry’s and Al’s crash site.

Although the number of MIA identifications from the Vietnam War, which today stand at 890, may not be terribly impressive at first glance, compared to the number of WWII recoveries made in five years, but if you take into account some of the challenges as mentioned above—not to speak of the big one: We did not win the Vietnam War and left under bad circumstances, and those were huge negatives for repatriating the remains of our MIAs.

However, DNA technology came to the rescue, helping JPACs Central Identification Laboratory (CIL) in Hawaii to recoup some of the lost time in Vietnam and subsequently in WWII locations and Korea. As the former wife of an MIA still missing in Vietnam, I am grateful for the emergence of DNA; however, no matter how many times I attend DNA learning sessions, I have come to believe that it is not in my DNA to understand this stuff.

Here are some basic DNA highlights with respect to our MIAs. To learn more about the CILs role in using DNA for MIA identifications, please visit www.jpac.pacom.mil/. Dr. Tom Holland, Scientific Director of the CIL, is an expert.

DNA Identifications: The general public in America learned of DNAs potential in 1995 while watching the OJ Simpson Trial—unfortunately the complexity of DNA confused the jury, and Simpson was acquitted. But DNA credibility took off. Soon, forensic scientists in the CIL, working with its counterpart, the Armed Forces DNA Identification Lab (AFDIL) in Maryland, began using the latest DNA techniques (which continue to evolve), making extractions from bones and teeth — even from the most impaired remains, which describe much of what has been found in Vietnam—yesterday and today. Although we have come to think of DNA as a quick fix, making an identification is difficult and requires a series of complex steps and great care in preventing contamination of the DNA samples to avoid a false match or mismatch.

DNA Family Reference Samples: There has been a huge effort to get families of MIAs from WWII, Korea and Vietnam to provide mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) samples given by maternal descendants of the MIA. The process requires a simple mouth swab. The kits can be accessed online from the Defense Prisoner of War/Missing Personnel Office (www.dtic.mil/dpmo/ ) or from JPACs site.

Once a sample is received from a family member, it is added to the appropriate database, setup for each war. The database form a repository of mtDNA samples, with the intent that scientists can exclude other potential candidates when trying to identify a specific MIA. My mother-in-law furnished a mtDNA sample that will be helpful if Jerry’s remains are found, as did Al’s mother before she passed away. The mtDNA is passed from the mother’s egg to her son and daughter and only passed along to female descendants. This type of DNA is very reliable and more likely to survive degradation over time. The use of Y-Chromosomes is also expanding, and this is passed from the father to his son. The use of different types of DNA is evolving so quickly that it is mindboggling to think of its capabilities. Yet, without finding viable remains in the field, DNA cannot be used in the identification process.

Extracting DNA from Other Sources: Today, the lab also asks families if they can provide materials, such as envelopes from which they can extract saliva; hats that will provide sweat; and hairbrushes for strands of hair. Many families have saved at least one of these items that may be helpful in the over-all identification process of their loved one. I have letters with envelopes and hats stored in Jerry’s trunk from Vietnam.

Databases: Interestingly, Korean War families have the largest DNA sample database per capita; Vietnam is second and WWII third–even though the latter suffered more losses than the other two put together. If you know of a family member with an MIA from a past war—even if the person is a great grandchild, be sure to suggest that they contact JPAC about the possibility of submitting a DNA sample.

Material Evidence: Although the pickings are slim at most sites in Vietnam, teams are careful to look for anything that might provide material evidence. At Jerry’s and Al’s site, JPAC collected life support gear, pieces of uniforms and aircraft debris. Sometimes, teams find unique keepsakes that can be linked to a particular missing person. In WWII locations, the remains frequently present with good material evidence, especially clothing, dog tags, boots and even weapons.

Final Identification: The CIL determines a final identification, using DNA results, Material Evidence and historical information, such as location of the site, type of aircraft or articles that denote a particular military unit and/or insignia. They also rely upon data from eye witness accounts, some of whom may no longer be alive but left written documentation before their deaths that were placed in an MIAs records.

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