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The Science Of Identifying Soldier Remains


When a member of the U.S. Armed Forces is killed in combat, someone must tell the family back home. And that duty falls to a person called a family liaison. Many people have seen that moment in the movies - the dress uniform, the knock at a mother's door. Some people have lived the experience. And then there are people who wait for any news, people whose loved ones went missing in action. When a missing Marine is finally found, the notification is done by Hattie Johnson, who let NPR's Arun Rath join her on a recent trip to Minden, Nev.

ARUN RATH, BYLINE: The initial phone call is always difficult. Sometimes when Hattie Johnson is reaching out to family to tell them their loved ones remains have been found, it's been a half century since they've heard from the Marine Corps.

HATTIE JOHNSON: They are suspicious if we - who we say we are. So sometimes they will say, well, give me some information, and I'll call you back. Others just hang up.

RATH: But she says after the initial shock, almost all are happy to hear from her and want to know all of the details. Lieutenant George Stanley Bussa's daughter, Jerilyn Heise, whom we're visiting today, had never heard from the Marine Corps before Johnson's call. She was just a baby when her father was killed in action in Guadalcanal in 1943.

JOHNSON: And these are your father's awards and decorations that he's entitled to. He received the Silver Star for his fighting on Guadalcanal.

RATH: Along with the medals, Johnson has brought a binder thick with documents and photos tracking Bussa's life and death in the military.

JOHNSON: Up until July, 1943, he was a gunnery sergeant. And he was field promoted in July, 1943, to a second lieutenant and given the title of platoon commander.

RATH: Moving through the binder, Johnson provides the best narrative she can of George Bussa's final days.

JOHNSON: And you'll see the maps in here. He was fighting on Red Beach 3. And you'll see in the footnotes...

RATH: It's not clear exactly when Bussa died, but it was in the midst of a particularly brutal three-day battle.

JOHNSON: ...And swim across. In most cases, they had to swim about 600 yards to shore through heavy Japanese fire.

RATH: With a U.S. Navy mortician at her side, Johnson goes through the full details of the death report, including photographs of the skeleton.

JOHNSON: According to the historical data and medical examiner, your father's injury was in his face, up to his - up in his upper body, ballistic wound to his upper body. So you'll notice most of his teeth are missing. What they do have is one tooth in his mandible, in his lower jaw. And, of course, almost all of his skeletal remains are there.

RATH: Johnson says this is usually the most difficult part of the briefing.

JOHNSON: I mean, she's never met her father. And this is the first time she's met him, and this is what she gets. You know, she gets his skeletal remains. And - but sometimes when people look at the skeletal remains, that's when the emotions start pouring out during the briefing.

RATH: The hardest cases, she says, involve POWs or Marines who may have been abused before being killed.

JOHNSON: And just trying to explain to the family the torture, I would get, you know, it was just emotional to me, and I would have to stop. In - so in some cases, you know, it does get really emotional for family members.

RATH: For Jerilyn Heise, who never knew her father, the feelings are less strained. It seemed he would have died quickly from his wound in a campaign that became the turning point for the war in the Pacific. And the binder holds precious letters from her mother, a window into her own past. Heise is grateful for all of it.

JERILYN HEISE: It's wonderful. And I think that it's really terrific what they went through to verify that his remains were his. And just - it's a wonderful thing that these people are doing.

RATH: The briefing ended the same way it would have if Bussa had died in combat last week - the signing of forms and running through funeral options. The family decided to go with a burial at Arlington National Cemetery. Marine Corps Second Lieutenant George Stanley Bussa will be laid to rest there with full military honors later this year. Arun Rath, NPR News.

[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: In the broadcast version of this report, we say that Lt. Bussa was killed in action on Guadalcanal. Bussa fought there, but died later in the war during the battle of Tarawa in the Gilbert Islands.] Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: May 30, 2017 at 12:00 AM EDT
In the version of this report that was broadcast, we say that Lt. Bussa was killed in action on Guadalcanal. Bussa fought there, but died later in the war during the battle of Tarawa in the Gilbert Islands.
Beginning in October 2015, Arun Rath assumed a new role as a shared correspondent for NPR and Boston-based public broadcaster WGBH News. He is based in the WGBH newsroom and his time is divided between filing national stories for NPR and local stories for WGBH News.