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USS Oklahoma 75 Years later: DNA is not just science, it's personal

Todd Weiler, Assistant Secretary of Defense for Manpower and Reserve Affairs, and Ronald Keohane, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Military Community and Family Policy; listen to Deborah Skillman, Director, Casualty, Mortuary Affairs and Military Funeral Honors from the Office of the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Military Community and Family Policy, explain the display board of confirmed USS Oklahoma remains identified by the Armed Forces DNA Identification Laboratory Nov. 4, 2016, at Armed Forces Medical Examiner System on Dover Air Force Base, Del. Weiler and Keohane received briefings and met with personnel at the Air Force Mortuary Affairs Operations, AFMES and the Joint Personal Effects Depot. (U.S. Air Force photo by Roland Balik) Todd Weiler, Assistant Secretary of Defense for Manpower and Reserve Affairs, and Ronald Keohane, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Military Community and Family Policy; listen to Deborah Skillman, Director, Casualty, Mortuary Affairs and Military Funeral Honors from the Office of the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Military Community and Family Policy, explain the display board of confirmed USS Oklahoma remains identified by the Armed Forces DNA Identification Laboratory Nov. 4, 2016, at Armed Forces Medical Examiner System on Dover Air Force Base, Del. Weiler and Keohane received briefings and met with personnel at the Air Force Mortuary Affairs Operations, AFMES and the Joint Personal Effects Depot. (U.S. Air Force photo by Roland Balik)

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DOVER AIR FORCE BASE, Del. –The USS Oklahoma was hit by multiple torpedoes and capsized during the attack on Pearl Harbor Dec. 7, 1941, resulting in the loss of 429 Navy and Marine personnel. Seventy-five years later the Department of Defense DNA Registry under the Armed Forces Medical Examiner System is still hard at work to bring those servicemen home to their families.

Sean Patterson, AFMES DoD DNA Registry DNA analyst, said he designed and created a board dedicated to the history of the USS Oklahoma as well as an identification board to remind people these are not just words on a page or DNA sequences that come up on their screens.

Sean Patterson, Armed Forces Medical Examiner System Department of Defense DNA Registry DNA analyst, stands in front of the USS Oklahoma Identification Board Nov. 29, 2016, at AFMES on Dover Air Force Base, Delaware. The board provides a picture for all 393 unaccounted service members from the ship. (U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman Ashlin Federick) Sean Patterson, Armed Forces Medical Examiner System Department of Defense DNA Registry DNA analyst, stands in front of the USS Oklahoma Identification Board Nov. 29, 2016, at AFMES on Dover Air Force Base, Delaware. The board provides a picture for all 393 unaccounted service members from the ship. (U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman Ashlin Federick)

“I think in any job it is easy to just go through the motions of looking at what is in front of you, stamping it and passing it on to the next person,” said Patterson. “These are people. The majority of them are young men who did not get the opportunity to have a life after high school. These are real people we are identifying and giving them back to their families.”

Of the 429 missing personnel, 36 were buried and identified in the years immediately following the incident. This left 393 buried among the unknowns at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, also known as the “Punchbowl”, making the unknowns from the USS Oklahoma the single largest group of buried unidentified servicemen from the Pearl Harbor attack.

Until recently, there were 44 graves of unknowns that contained 60 caskets directly associated with the USS Oklahoma in two areas of the Punchbowl.  All but one of these caskets was reported to contain multiple sets of unknowns. From mid-2015 through early 2016, they were all exhumed for anthropological examination of Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency in Hawaii, who sent bone samples to the Armed Forces DNA Identification Laboratory under the DoD DNA Registry for DNA analysis.

Since the exhumations began AFDIL has assisted the DPAA in identifying 21 individuals and returning them to their families.

There are two boards associated with the USS Oklahoma. One is the history at Pearl Harbor and everything that happened during the attack and reasons it was difficult to identify all the personnel. The second board is considered the identification board which contains a picture for all 393 still unaccounted for individuals on the ship.

Everyone is given a white background and once identification has been made the color will change to either green or red. Green is for those identified by dental records and red is for those identified by DNA.

Patterson said the promise of no man left behind includes no man unaccounted for.

“We are doing a service to these people who have given their lives in service to our country,” said Patterson. “It is huge for us to realize that our job is not just putting data into a computer or processing something in a laboratory. These people have passed away and we are still working for them and their families.”

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