The Challenges And The Rewards Of Identifying Fallen Soldiers

By Lauren Gilger
Published: Thursday, January 14, 2021 - 1:52pm

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USS Arizona wreckage site
National Park Service
USS Arizona wreckage site on Dec. 10, 1941.

LAUREN GILGER: Tomorrow, after nearly 80 years, an Arizona soldier who was killed in the Pearl Harbor attack will be put to rest. Seaman First Class Carl Johnson's remains were identified by the Navy using DNA matching, and now he'll be returned home for burial to a family that was relieved to finally find some closure. It's a responsibility the Navy and our next guest take seriously. Lt. Salisah Labonte is with the Navy's Casualty POW/MIA branch, and it's her job to work with families once a soldier's remains are identified and return them home. I spoke with her more about its difficulties and rewards.

SALISAH LABONTE: When the Defense POW/MIA Agency identifies remains, they call us and we reached out to the family members and we make that identification. I will tell you, it is absolutely a beautiful experience and every single one is different. Every family I call, the mass majority of the families that I speak to when I notify them of their lost and, lost ones — it is a very touching moment. Ninety-nine percent of them, they break down, they cry, there's a pause, they're in shock. They're extremely happy. So it is an absolute pleasure for me to have this job to be able to bring this joy into families' lives.

GILGER: Yeah, yeah. Those conversations are probably so important to these folks. Are they, I can imagine just surprise, shock, especially because some of these people have been missing for so long.

LABONTE: Oh, absolutely, ma'am. Some still have hope that we would recover the remains of their loved ones. And others, they, they never thought that this day would come. So they are extremely happy. Some of them have reserved plots already for their family members with the hope of receiving this call from our, from our branch.

GILGER: Tell us a little bit about the process, lieutenant, in terms of, of how the Navy identifies these remains. This is, these are from so long ago. This, this example here in Arizona is from Pearl Harbor. I mean, how do you identify remains after so long?

LABONTE: Due to modern technology and advances in forensic and scientific analytical capabilities, we have the ability to do that, do this. The Navy works very close with the DPAA — the Defense POW/MIA Agency. They match the DNA up with the remains that we have and they notify us and we go out and we get in touch with the family members. There's a lot of work that goes into it because we have a genealogist on contract with us that does a lot of the work that reaches out to the family members. And so we can trace those lines. But absolutely, it's an amazing process. And to be able to bring these family members home.

GILGER: Talk a little bit about the commitment of the Navy to identify casualties like, like Carl Johnson, who was just returned here to Arizona. I mean, this is 80 years later, it's, multiple generations have gone by. Thousands of people passed through this department. Like, why is the Navy committed to doing this? Why does it matter?

LABONTE: Ma'am, it is what we are here for. The way I look at it, I've been in the Navy for 22 years. These sailors that, you know, we talk about POW, MIA, gone, but not forgotten. Ma'am, I can guarantee you that the Navy has not forgotten these sailors. They have paved the way for us. They have laid down their lives. And it's history. And they've given the ultimate sacrifice. So everything that we do today is based on everything that they have done in our past to give — get us where we are right now. So we are 100% committed, ma'am, in identifying these sailors.

GILGER: I'm sure, though, that that's not always the case. Like, are there cases in which you can't identify remains and you know that these people are out there. You can't find the families who maybe, who maybe lost these folks because it's been so long. And how do you square that?

LABONTE: So, ma'am, you are right. There are some cases and we do everything we can where, you know, from our genealogists to, we do a lot of searches. And most recently, there was an interview by DPAA where they had put out all the names of the families — of the sailors that we still do not have DNA for, with hopes that the family members would see these names in the news and reach out to us to donate their DNA so we could possibly identify these sailors. And it's a sad day if we cannot acquire DNA for these family members. But we don't give up hope. We keep trying and exhaust all means in order to get these sailors identified.

GILGER: All right. That is Lt. Salisah Labonte with the Navy Casualty POW/MIA branch joining us. Lt.  Labonte, thank you so much for joining us to talk about this.

LABONTE: Oh, absolutely, ma'am. My pleasure. And thank you for having me.

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