Experts solve old cases, bring families closure
A Texas lab specializes in solving deaths and disappearances in combat.
DALLAS MORNING NEWS
SAN ANTONIO -- The low-slung building on a military installation looks more like a suburban bank branch than something out of "CSI: Miami." But there are similarities, though the work being done here behind locked doors deals with the mysteries of war.
The Air Force lab at Brooks City-Base in San Antonio, the only one of its kind, is the military's court of last resort for solving deaths and disappearances as old as World War II and as recent as operations in Afghanistan. Here, technicians piece together shreds of uniforms and broken machines to put old cases to rest and give long-grieving families answers.
Since 1994, they've completed 120 cases, giving families of the dead and missing long-awaited resolution. Lab director J.C. Smith says it's "very much akin to a crime lab, except we don't deal with human remains.
"We process the evidence, create a written and photographic record, and make it part of the official story," he said. "And each case has its own dynamic."
Under bright lights, Howard Lusk carefully measures the stained remnants of an Army flight suit, smoothing the scraps of faded cloth on a steel table to reveal an irregular charred hole in the sleeve.
The flight suit and its accompanying artifacts, which fit neatly in a small cardboard box, may help reveal the fate of four crewmen of a CH-37 helicopter shot down over Cambodia in 1972 during a rescue mission. After the war, no human remains were found, just these bits of uniform and some torn canvas webbing.
Lusk, a forensics investigator at the Air Force Life Sciences Equipment Laboratory, now attempts to tease out some clues to what happened.
"We know this suit was a 38 short from measuring the seams. It's also compatible with the flight suits worn on that kind of mission and that aircraft," Lusk said. "And this material scorches at 825 degrees Fahrenheit. To get this degree of charring, it's likely the crash was not survivable."
Families of the lost may know that, but the chance for closure may be important to them. That raises the emotional stakes.
Said Smith: "We're all very aware that we're dealing with the last chapter in a man's life."
When U.S. search teams find evidence of a military loss, such as aircraft wreckage, those cases where no DNA identification can be made come to the Brooks lab in a small shipping box. The lab's job then becomes to build a case based on the shreds of uniforms, helmet straps and other fragments of war, Smith said.
A copy of each report goes to family members of any soldier identified.
"Often, they come here to learn about those last days. They can see the artifacts; hold them in their hands. It's the last thing associated with their loved ones," Smith said. "That it's been 30 years or more doesn't make a bit of difference."
There are nearly 89,000 American military personnel who remain unaccounted for from World War II through Desert Storm. Vietnam accounts for 1,842 of the missing.
Earlier this year, the Defense Base Closure and Realignment Commission, known as BRAC, recommended closure of the Air Force portion of Brooks City-Base and relocation of 3,000 military and civilian jobs to Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio. What might happen to the lab is unclear.
The lab is working on 16 cases referred by the Joint POW-MIA Accounting Command. Artifacts in the cases may fit into a shoebox or be 2,000 pieces. Each case takes two to six months or longer to complete. Technicians at the lab also work on more current cases, assisting in about 12 major investigations of incidents involving equipment failure on Air Force aircraft. The most recent involved a helicopter crash in Afghanistan earlier this year.
The lab can do infrared and ultraviolet examination to find serial numbers blurred by rust and time or separate bloodstains from fuel spills.
But its most striking research aid is the extensive collection of military uniforms and equipment from World War I through today. It has one of the largest collections of aircraft ejection seats in the world, as well as complete cockpit sections of Vietnam-era F-4 Phantoms, Huey helicopters and the F-15 fighter.
The lab's warehouse is crammed with arrays of flight suits, helmets, packs, parachute rigging and other equipment. Display cases are filled with collections of dog tags, emergency radios, belts, straps and boots.
For some, the investigations they conduct come close to home. Dave Headley was shot down three times in one day as a helicopter pilot in Vietnam. While working on artifacts from the wreck of a JU-21A electronics surveillance plane shot down in 1971, he realized it was from his old unit.
At another workspace nearby, John Goines, a senior analyst, examined the weave pattern of a Marine-issue cotton flight suit under a microscope. It was last worn in 1966 by the pilot of an A-4E jet that crashed in Laos.
"At this point, all we have are burned areas and torn fragments of his parachute harness, but it's enough to show he never got out of the aircraft," Goines said.
"It's what we do. We take a small part of the puzzle and match it to what we have until we have enough to make conclusions. And it's a very big puzzle. We have to take it a piece at a time."