Unit’s dentists link clues to mystery of military’s fallen

HICKAM AIR FORCE BASE, Hawaii -- Odontologist Lt. Col. Gregory Silver, of the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command's Central Identification Laboratory, examines a partially edentulous mandible. (JPAC photo by U.S. Navy Photographer's Mate 2nd Class Elizabeth A. Edwards)

HICKAM AIR FORCE BASE, Hawaii -- Odontologist Lt. Col. Gregory Silver, of the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command's Central Identification Laboratory, examines a partially edentulous mandible. (JPAC photo by U.S. Navy Photographer's Mate 2nd Class Elizabeth A. Edwards)

HICKAM AIR FORCE BASE, Hawaii -- Odontologist Lt. Col. Gregory Silver, of the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command's Central Identification Laboratory, examines a partially edentulous mandible. (JPAC photo by U.S. Navy Photographer's Mate 2nd Class Elizabeth A. Edwards)

HICKAM AIR FORCE BASE, Hawaii -- Odontologist Lt. Col. Gregory Silver, of the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command's Central Identification Laboratory, examines a partially edentulous mandible. (JPAC photo by U.S. Navy Photographer's Mate 2nd Class Elizabeth A. Edwards)

HICKAM AIR FORCE BASE, Hawaii -- Odontologist Lt. Col. Gregory Silver, of the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command's Central Identification Laboratory, scrubs dental records of unaccounted-for soldiers from the Korean War. Confirming the accuracy of each record can take several hours since all military dental records were done by hand during the Korean War, and mistakes were commonplace due to human error.  (JPAC photo by U.S. Navy Photographer's Mate 2nd Class Elizabeth A. Edwards)

HICKAM AIR FORCE BASE, Hawaii -- Odontologist Lt. Col. Gregory Silver, of the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command's Central Identification Laboratory, scrubs dental records of unaccounted-for soldiers from the Korean War. Confirming the accuracy of each record can take several hours since all military dental records were done by hand during the Korean War, and mistakes were commonplace due to human error. (JPAC photo by U.S. Navy Photographer's Mate 2nd Class Elizabeth A. Edwards)

HICKAM AIR FORCE BASE, Hawaii -- Lt. Col. Walter Henry never dreamed his Army career as a dentist would lead him to a job where he would get to help identify Americans missing-in-action from the nation’s past conflict.

Henry is one of only three odontologists working as forensic dentists at the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command. JPAC is charged with a full accounting of the estimated 88,000 Americans who never returned home from World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the Cold War and the Gulf war.

JPAC teams deploy worldwide to sites where clues for unaccounted-for Americans may be located to recover evidence including coat buttons, bone fragments, and dog tags. All evidence that is found at each site is scientifically examined and paired with historical documents in an effort to identify missing Americans to be returned to their families and buried with full military honors.

In about 25 percent of all cases, JPAC teams return with dental remains. That’s when JPAC odontologists come into play. Dental remains often offer the best means available to positively identify an individual because teeth are durable and are unique from person to person.

“Enamel found in teeth is the hardest natural tissue found in the body and some of the restorative [dental] materials such as gold, porcelain, amalgam are harder than enamel. Usually, teeth will endure a disaster, which can help in the identification,” Army Lt. Col. Gregory Silver, JPAC odontologist said.

The process of matching teeth to a particular person begins by compiling a list of MIAs who might be linked to remains of teeth found at a site. Forensic dentists then re-create dental records based on the teeth ‘found in the field’ and compare that with historical dental charts. The goal is to find a match with a MIA or exclude MIAs who teeth do not match.

“The average person has 32 teeth and each tooth has five surfaces to be restored in various combinations. This will give a huge number of possibilities [in an identification],” Silver said. “Dental remains will quickly tell you who someone is or is not.”

Once JPAC forensic dentist discover all the similarities between a missing individual’s antemortem dental record and a particular set of dental remains, their findings are added to the case file for that MIA.

“Dental evidence resists decomposition and may be analyzed for an indefinite period of time. As we are looking at historic remains, the dental elements are of utmost importance for identification,” said Navy Cmdr. Kevin Torske, JPAC’s senior forensic odontologist.

At times, there may be very little to examine. This was the situation with Henry’s first case at JPAC when he was presented with only three teeth held by a fragment of an upper jaw.
“It was somewhat daunting,” Henry said. Henry said he initially thought that he would never crack the case, but he was wrong.

“One tooth had a filling and that was unique enough to one individual,” he said.
From only one tooth, Henry established a direct link between the remains and a missing service member.

That service member was part of a B-24 flight crew that crashed with 11 people on board. Dental records were available on all of the crewmen.

“The remains we had could be only one of the crewmembers,” Henry said.

While teeth are often critical to the identification process, Torske emphasized that dental work is only a portion of the overall picture.

Dental remains analyzed by JPAC forensic dentists offer another line of evidence to strengthen the case to help identify a missing person, but the final identification is a team effort that involves combining all available evidence.

“Along with anthropology,” Torske said, “material evidence, mitochondrial DNA, and historical information, dental [evidence] simply offers another piece of the puzzle in the complex act of identifying historic human remains.” (Courtesy of Pacific Air Forces)