University of Wisconsin works to bring MIA Americans home

Jack Murphy
November 15, 2019 - 10:49 am
DPPA recovery mission

DVIDs, Photo by Petty Officer 1st Class Amara Timberlake

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According to the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA), “more than 81,900 Americans remain missing from World War II, the Korean War, the Cold War, and the Vietnam War.” It has made some herculean efforts to recover Americans missing in action abroad and repatriate their remains back to the United States, but these endeavors are resource-intensive, to say the least. Stepping in to help in the effort is a lesser-known program at the University of Wisconsin called the Missing in Action Recovery and Identification Project.

The project began back in 2013 when the university's biotechnology center, overseen by Charles Konsitzke, was asked to perform DNA analysis on the remains of a World War II-era MIA, PFC Lawrence Gordon. While conducting this task, the biotechnology officer reached out to the agency which is now called DPAA. This initiated cooperation between DPAA and the University of Wisconsin along with a more formal program to help identify more MIAs. Today, the Missing in Action Recovery and Identification Project brings together a multi-disciplinary team of students and instructors.

“We have a great group of students with a diverse academic background, which includes history, anthropology, archaeology, business, biology, toxicology, etc. We appreciate the interdisciplinary backgrounds because they allow the team to collectively think, problem-solve, and perform outside of the box or norm. The students that work with us or work in the field with us are volunteers and in theory, do not obtain credits nor income, however, they do not incur any expenses while in the field,” Konsitzke told Connecting Vets.

Regarding the funding of the project, “overall, we are on a very tight shoestring budget,” he explained. Their staff works on a pro-bono basis with DPAA funding summer recovery missions in the field.

In 2016 and 2017, the MIA Recovery and Identification project repatriated First Lt. Frank Fazekas and in 2018 they recovered Second Lt. Walter B. Stone. Both were fighter pilots shot down over France during World War II. Konsitzke was unable to reveal their current efforts to repatriate MIAs due to the university's agreements with DPAA, which involve non-disclosure agreements until these cases are closed.

While working with and alongside DPAA, the university's project has some differences as well.

“It is similar and we abide by DPAA protocols, however, we are much more cost-effective and efficient with our equipment as well as we are always driven to evolve and innovate,” Konsitzke said.

The students are also looking at new technologies such as, “new structures for sediment shakers, biological analytical approaches in the field and using cutting edge software programs for analysis with a future focus on AI and machine learning for historical analysis, i.e. use student time for active hands-on work and the machines for seeking, collecting, and processing data.”

Kinsitzke also pointed out that because they are a university program, they can go to places that a U.S. government entity like DPAA may not be able to due to current geopolitical dynamics.

But they may not be operating on a shoestring budget forever. Senate Bill 446 proposed at the Wisconson legislature would add up to $180,000 dollars each fiscal year to efforts to recover MIA soldiers from the state for the university's program.

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Reach Jack Murphy: jack@connectingvets.com or @JackMurphyRGR.