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JPAC Forensic Science Academy


Today, I had the opportunity to visit the Forensic Science Academy at JPAC’s Central Identification Laboratory, which is the largest skeletal identification laboratory in the world.  Though I’ve attended JPAC events before, such as the arrival ceremony for American remains, this was my first extensive time in one of the labs, giving the attendees a crash course in forensic anthropology.

As I’ve blogged before, the mission of the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command is “to achieve the fullest possible accounting of all Americans missing as a result of our nations past conflicts.” The command was created in 2003, and consist of more than 400 joint military (all branches) and civilian personnel. The Forensic Science Academy was opened in the CIL in 2008, and is a very competitive and advanced 5-course program where students of forensic anthropology receive a variety of training in the lab, as well as spending five weeks on a military search and recovery mission in Southeast Asia.

We started off with a presentation given by Dr. Robert Mann, the director of the Forensic Science Academy, which covered the basics of JPAC’s mission techniques and processes.  He told us an interesting story of how they identified a bunker in Vietnam based on a survivor’s memory of throwing down a sardine can and spoon near the bunker’s door just as a battle began – years later, after excavating the bunker they found the sardine can and spoon right where the survivor said it would be.

An example of an artifact that was used as evidence.

Adult-size Chinese footbinding shoe, another artifact

We then moved onto a more hands-on demonstration, in which Dr. Mann taught us some of the identifiers to look for in bones, especially those based on gender.  The skull and hip bones are particularly valuable when determining the gender of remains.

I also walked around the lab, photographing the different educational models and displays, including a sample of an excavation grid.

JPAC rarely works with soft tissues, but it's still important knowledge as they are occasionally consulted for modern criminal cases.

These are various prosthetics that may be discovered with remains, such as an artificial knee, teeth, etc.

Using skeletons that are reserved for teaching, Dr. Mann then had some of us attempt to piece them together to the best of our ability.  I mostly hung back to take photos, but it was a very interesting process!

Finally, we moved to the table of bone fragments, where we learned that the ethnicity of the remains could be determined based on just the tip of a pinky bone!

Lee Tucker, one of JPAC's public affairs people, who does a lot of awesome photography for them!

When solving these cases, every bit of evidence that can be found is important. Currently, the oldest set of remains that has been identified by JPAC is from World War I, but they are making progress on a set of Civil War remains. JPAC identifies around 70-100 sets of remains per year, but they have been issued a mandate by Congress to increase indentifications to 200 per year by 2015, and have been fortunate to not have had any decrease in their federal funding.

Overall, it was an extremely fascinating experience, as I’ve always had an interest in forensic anthropology – alas, I chose art over science! However, I am very happy to continue supporting JPAC and their noble mission through my photography.

Keep an eye on Bytemarks Cafe for an audio interview with Dr. Mann next week!

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