Families gather in hopes of finding missing service members

Some 300 people gathered in Charlotte on Saturday, searching for answers about husbands and uncles, brothers and cousins – loved ones gone but not forgotten.

They’d been invited by the U.S. Department of Defense to a daylong briefing, one of six the agency holds around the country each year to update family members on efforts to identify more than 83,000 service members missing since World War II.

Among those attending were James and Jean Patterson of Huntersville. They’re hoping to find James’ cousin, Herman Mulligan, who grew up in Greenville, S.C., and died in 1945 in the Battle of Okinawa.

James Patterson knew little about his cousin until January, when he connected with Dale Maharidge, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author who wrote a 2013 memoir about his father, Steve Maharidge. In the book, “Bringing Mulligan Home: The Other Side of the Good War,” he also writes about the man who became his dad’s best friend when they were two young Marines during World War II. That man was Herman Mulligan.

The Observer recently wrote about the Pattersons, Maharidge and their quest to find Mulligan. Maharidge believes his father felt responsible for Mulligan’s death. He wants to identify Mulligan’s remains because he thinks it would make his dad happy.

After James Patterson read Maharidge’s book and learned more about his cousin – and about his late grandfather’s futile efforts to try to find Mulligan, he decided he wanted to find Mulligan, too. In late January, he mailed a DNA sample to the government, hoping it would help in the search.

Like James Patterson, many who’d come to Saturday’s meeting at Charlotte’s Renaissance Suites Hotel hoped for a similar outcome.

During an emotional opening ceremony, several dozen attendees stood one by one, describing their missing loved ones.

“I still cry over Tom after all these years,” said a woman from Brevard.

“It’s just been hard not knowing what happened to him,” said Irene Hicks of Morganton, her voice breaking as she recalled her brother, who died in Korea.

“We’re hoping to have a funeral one day,” said a man whose father died in Korea.

Several said they wanted closure, for themselves and their families. Many thanked the government officials for their dogged work. Leading identification efforts is the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command, which excavates sites across the globe and runs a laboratory where remains can be identified.

But statistics suggest that chances of identification are slim. The government, which spends about $100 million annually on recovery efforts, makes about 72 identifications a year. At that rate, National Public Radio and ProPublica concluded in a recent joint investigation, it would take more than 600 years to identify all of the missing.

That new investigation blamed the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command for using an outdated approach. The agency, it said, “is hindered by several layers of bureaucracy, an aversion to risk and a reluctance to lead with DNA testing.”

This is the latest criticism of an agency that has become the target of controversy. In July, an Associated Press story about an internal JPAC report, suppressed by JPAC’s leaders, described an agency encumbered by bureaucracy that was moving from “dysfunction to total failure.”

The investigation by NPR and ProPublica reported that JPAC disinters remains and uses DNA only when scientists can narrow possible matches to five or six people. Instead of starting by trying to match DNA from remains with samples from family members of the missing, JPAC first builds a circumstantial case, looking at medical records and measuring bones, for instance, to determine a person’s size and age.

Critics call that approach inefficient and out of date. ProPublica, a nonprofit investigative newsroom, suggests JPAC exhume and test the DNA of unknown soldiers. More than 9,400 service members from World War II and the Korean War are buried as unknown soldiers in Hawaii and at cemeteries around the world.

In the wake of such critiques, major changes may be coming. U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel in February ordered a reorganization of the U.S. Department of Defense’s personnel accounting efforts. Defense officials will also “propose ways to increase the number of methods of accounting for the missing,” according to an email from Defense Department spokeswoman Amy Derrick-Frost, in response to an Observer question.

Derrick-Frost said they’ll also increase identification processes and practices “aligning these with the latest DNA technological and evidentiary standards.”

During Saturday’s briefings with family members, government officials didn’t suggest major changes were coming. Neither did they bring up recent criticisms.

But Jean Patterson did. During a question-and-answer session, she asked about exhuming more bodies and doing more DNA testing.

In response, Maj. Gen. W. Montague Winfield, deputy assistant secretary of defense for POW/missing personnel affairs, explained that policy requires a probability of a successful identification before a body can be exhumed. It would be a major policy change, he said, to do large-scale exhumations.

“A lot of people would argue it’s unfair to take them out of their graves and put them on a shelf,” he said.

ProPublica suggests that bodies could be left in place and tested using a mobile DNA unit and then housed in a mausoleum while DNA cross referencing is done.

The Pattersons believe exhumation would likely be key to identifying Mulligan. As Maharidge researched his book, he learned that Mulligan died after he threw a grenade into a tomb.

The tomb, filled with Japanese munitions, exploded in a blast that sent concrete chunks through the air. One hit Mulligan. Members of Mulligan’s company told Maharidge they believe he was buried in the U.S. military cemetery on the island. But somehow, his remains weren’t correctly identified. Those bodies on Okinawa were later removed and interred with about 2,000 other unidentified World War II soldiers in the National Cemetery of the Pacific in Honolulu. That’s where Maharidge believes Mulligan’s unidentified remains rest today.

While Saturday’s briefing in Charlotte couldn’t give definitive answers, it provided many families with documents and details about their individual cases. It also gave them the opportunity to meet one-on-one with officials to discuss specific cases.

When the Pattersons met with a researcher, they found he was very familiar with Mulligan’s case. In fact, he’d recently finished reading “Bringing Mulligan Home.” The researcher, Jean Patterson said, called Maharidge’s investigative work invaluable. She said he also suspects Mulligan could be buried in Hawaii, as Maharidge believes.

“We got so much more information from him,” she said. “That was the highlight for us.”

As policies stand, though, JPAC won’t be exhuming remains unless scientists can show a strong probability of success. That will take more investigation, and it will depend on whether information in Mulligan’s files, his dental or physical records perhaps, matches with information in a file on some unknown soldier.

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