The College of Information Science and Technology at the University of Nebraska at Omaha (UNO) is working with forensic anthropologists at Offutt Air Force Base to develop a system of identifying the remains of soldiers killed in past wars.
Sachin Pawaskar, professor of information systems and qualitative analysis, heads the project at UNO known as the Commingled Remains and Analytics Ecosystem (CoRA) program. He works with the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA) laboratory, located at Offutt Air Force Base, directed by Franklin Damann who holds a doctorate in forensic anthropology.
Pawaskar is working on perfecting the program, with help from capstone class students, which could take several years he said. CoRA is a web application that aims to give forensic anthropologists working on identifying soldiers’ remains a common framework and platform for data, which integrates data storage with analytics programs in order to increase efficiency.
“The goal really is to create this common ontology and a standard that will make the lives of forensic anthropologists easier in the long run, so they can do better analytics,” Pawaskar said.
The program also uses techniques such as data visualization and graph theory to statistically analyze bones and their DNA profiles in order to match bones with each other and untangle the mystery of unidentified commingled remains, Pawaskar said.
“Things that usually take them two weeks can now be done in a couple seconds,” he said.
According to Pawaskar, it is estimated that there are over 80,000 unaccounted-for remains of soldiers from World War II, the Korean War and Vietnam. Over 40,000 of these remains are considered identifiable.
“And the biggest one, of course, is the Korean War,” Pawaskar said. “Mr. Trump is talking with Kim Jong Un to try to get more of our fallen soldiers back. So there are more caskets that are going to come.”
Many remains from these wars have remained unidentified because DNA analysis technology was unavailable at the time, which made it hard to identify bodies.
“It’s hard, when you have 300 commingled bones, to kind of figure out which bone goes with which other bone,” Pawaskar said. “And you cannot do DNA testing on all the bones because it would be too expensive.”
CoRA narrows the criteria by which bones could possibly match each other, making it possible to search through very large numbers of remains.
The partnership between UNO and DPAA began in 2016 when Damann read an opinion article in the Omaha World-Herald written by the dean of the College of Information Science and Technology, which mentioned that the college’s capstone class was offering to help local businesses that needed information technology solutions.
When Damann came to work at the DPAA lab in 2015, data were stored in digital spreadsheets and on paper, which were inadequate for the job, he said.
“We quickly realized that we needed something bigger and better,” Damann said. “It just happened to coincide with this op-ed piece, and I reached out to UNO and said ‘I think I have a problem that you might be willing to help us solve.’”
At the time, DPAA was working on identifying remains from the USS Oklahoma, Damann said. Japanese torpedoes sank the battleship during the attack on Pearl Harbor, killing over 400 marines and sailors.
The analysts at the lab are now able to use laptops to enter data into their CoRA from the lab floor, which couldn’t be done with older systems.
Since UNO and DPAA have been working together, the number of annual remains identifications have increased from around 80 per year to 206 in 2018, Pawaskar said.
DPAA was formed in 2015 by a reorganization effort led by Congress and the Department of Defense. Three separate agencies, Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command (JPAC) in Hawaii, the Deployment Process Modernization Office in Virginia and the Life Science Equipment Laboratory at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio, Damann said. The laboratory at Offutt was set up under the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command in 2012.
The laboratory needed to be near a military base and a “solid” university system, which would help with research, he said. JPAC got such a good response from leaders in Offutt and Omaha, that the commanding officer chose Bellevue from other locations.
“Having spent eight years in D.C. before coming out here, I am absolutely thrilled that this is what they chose,” Damann said. “We settled here, my family, in the Bellevue area, and just absolutely love being out here.”