BYU students help fulfill nation’s promise to never leave a soldier behind

On Wednesday, Aug. 1, 2018, service members carried what is believed to be remains of U.S. soldiers from the Korean War. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

On July 27, 55 boxes of what is believed to be the remains of fallen American soldiers in the Korean War was returned to U.S. soil after 65 years. At some point, the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency will process the remains with the hope of identifying these soldiers.

Since its formation in 2015, the DPAA dedicates countless hours to recovering and identifying the remains of fallen American heroes so the agency can provide the fullest possible accounting to the families of the missing soldiers. Its mission is to account for every missing soldier back to WWII.

BYU students in the Center for Family History and Genealogy are helping in these efforts to reunite the fallen soldiers with their families. BYU is participating in the DPAA Repatriation Project by doing genealogical research.

“It is just a very sweet experience to be involved in this project and to be able to assist our country,” said Director Jill Crandell.

BYU students use their genealogical skills to help the DPAA in connecting fallen POW/MIA soldiers with their families. (Ty Mullen)

There are currently 82,000 soldiers missing since WWII, according to the DPAA, and about 73,000 are fallen soldiers from WWII. Because of the sheer number of cases, most of the cases BYU students work on are from WWII.

The cases from WWII are prioritized because the relatives who were closest to the soldiers are often deceased, and it is becoming increasingly difficult to locate them as time passes. 

“The DPAA asked us to help because of our genealogical skills and our ability to identify the family members who are the legal next of kin and potential DNA donors, who are not always the same,” Crandell said. “We are actually locating groups of people. We need Y DNA donors, mitochondrial DNA donors and the legal next of kin.”

So far, the students have completed and turned 50 cases over to the army. They have an additional eight cases in progress. However, this is not an easy feat.

The DPAA sends BYU a file with all the historical documents they have collected about the fallen soldier. BYU students then comb over every detail they can find in those documents.

BYU Fellow of the DPAA Repatriation Project Lisa Stokes mentors the students throughout the process.

“We just start from there and build a genealogical tree for the family. We find all of the living next of kin and determine who is the oldest and closest to the service member. Then, we find the DNA matches,” Stokes said. “Sometimes we need to go up to the service member’s grandparents and then out to cousins to get the potential DNA matches. Sometimes we’ve gone as far back as five generations and then back down again.”

Relatively straightforward cases can take up to 50 hours to complete, while others can take months. Students have spent at least 150 hours working on one case in particular, but they are not giving up.

“That’s why the military asked for our assistance. This is not just an ‘open a file and read a name’ process,” Crandell said. “This project involves significant genealogical research with detailed analysis. It takes people who are trained in how to connect those relationships.”

BYU students have completed 50 cases and are in the process of completing eight more. (Ty Mullen)

Stokes gets the opportunity to contact the family members once they have been identified as relatives. She always tries to find a way to thank them for their sacrifice.

Stokes described a touching case where a soldier had gone missing in war, and his family members were devout Catholics. The soldier’s mom would pray to a Saint Anthony statue every morning, midday and night so the remains of her son would be found and returned. She did that every day until the day she died in 1955.

“The granddaughter remembers her grandmother praying. She is the family member who will receive the remains if they’re found. It meant a lot to her. She just kept telling me how thankful she was that we’re still trying,” Stokes said.

The DPAA works to provide as much information as it can to the soldiers’ families, even if they have not found the remains.

“Even if they don’t find remains, they provide large, detailed reports to the families of everything they have learned about the soldier’s service and what happened to him,” Crandell said.

The first reason BYU got involved in the DPAA Repatriation Project was because it was an amazing service, according to Crandell. The other reason is that the project provides BYU students with hands-on research on challenging cases that are not their own family.

“This is an ideal project that helps the families, helps the DPAA with their mission and also teaches our students. It’s just a win-win all the way,” Crandell said.

BYU donors contribute financially to the project by paying the students’ wages. Assistant researcher Angela Sellers has been working on a case about a soldier that died in the Philippines during WWII. 

“It is a really wonderful project, and I hope that more people will want to come and do an internship or volunteer to help us bring these soldiers back home,” Sellers said.

With BYU’s help, the DPAA is helping to fulfill the nation’s promise of never leaving a fallen American soldier behind.

“It’s service for our country for us because we can serve others who have served,” Crandell said. “We can’t bring them back, and we’re not fighting the wars ourselves, but we can help those families that are doing that. It’s our piece of the service.”

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