Interning at Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA) Week 1

My first week at DPAA has been excellent. I’ve met some amazing people and learned some new techniques for analyzing bone. For those who do not know, DPAA is where the human remains recovered from US wars are sent for identification. The remains are studied by historians and forensic anthropologists, and DNA samples are analyzed in order to identify the remains and send them home.

My first day started with getting a pass for Offutt Air Force Base where DPAA is located. My pass consists of a very official looking card with my photo on it. I have to admit that despite it only existing to get me past the security at the gate, I was unreasonably excited to have it. I played it cool, though; I didn’t want to appear unprofessional or ridiculous. So, pretending that getting an official government card was an everyday occurrence, I drove the short distance from the gate to DPAA.

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There is a lobby as you walk into DPAA where some of the artifacts recovered with the remains are on display. Boots, eyeglasses, pieces of uniforms and helmets. There is also a room where families come to receive the remains of their relative. It’s a sobering reminder of what all of this exists for.

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Most of the work I am doing at DPAA will be on the remains from the USS Oklahoma, which was bombed in Pearl Harbor. The boat sank upside down in shallow water, and although they were able to cut into the hull and get 30 or so guys out alive, roughly 400 sailors were unrecovered. Over the next decade or so, the remains were recovered, but with little provenience, and a high degree of decomposition, they were unable to sort the remains into individuals, so they were bundled and grouped and buried. Now that we have better technology, the Oklahoma remains have been exhumed and sent to DPAA Offutt to be identified. 400 burials is a lot of burials, and all of them are being sampled for DNA, CT scanned, and visually pair matched. I think I’ll have plenty to do this summer! That said, there are other individuals that are being analyzed here as well, I think most come from Europe, so likely WWII as well.

While I don’t get to do the DNA sampling, I got to spend a day this week assisting in sampling. This meant that I alternated between spraying bleach on everything (except the bones of course) and taking pictures. The big deal is, you don’t want any bone dust getting on any of the samples, so gloves get bleached between touching bone and anything else, and all surface areas get bleached between having bones on them. If bone dust from one sample gets on another, then it could result in inaccurate DNA results from the DNA lab. We were not actually extracting DNA, just taking samples so that someone else could do the extraction and analysis.

Two days this week were spent CT scanning. I did over 100 CT scans over the course of Thursday and Friday. Not bad, huh? (I actually have no idea if that’s fast or not) It was fun, and I noticed a bony deposit on one of them that wasn’t very visible to the naked eye, but super obvious in the CT scan. That was pretty cool to see.

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Part of this week I spent bagging up remains and sealing them with evidence tape. Turns out, evidence tape was created by the devil. It breaks really easily, but sticks to everything, so getting it to stay on what you’re taping without it sticking too badly to your gloves is nearly impossible. I’m sure there’s a technique that I have not developed yet, but until then, we remain mortal enemies. I hope I figure it out soon, because I’m wasting a lot of tape right now. Sorry tax dollars.

The last task I participated in this week was pair matching and aging the remains. I hadn’t done pair matching before, so that was good to learn. It consists of looking at a bone from one side of the body and seeing how well it corresponds to the same bone on the other side. On some, they are obviously different, which is easier. It’s much harder to be certain that they are the same than to be certain they are different.

A note on my living situation. In searching on AirBnB, I discovered a cheap place called Nirvana Point Wellness Retreat that had some weird requirements, such as no GMO foods, alcohol, red meat or any non-organic farm meat. It was cheap, though, and in a safe part of town, and in the woods a little bit. I decided to go for it, and on my first night here Sophia had me try out her chi machine (not chi like chi square, but chi like eastern medicine), it basically wobbled my feet back and forth while I lay on my back for ten minutes. It felt kind of good, I figure feet always need a good shake, they’ve been supporting all of your weight all day, after all. She also had me try asking a question of her Native American Spirit cards (they’re kind of like tarot cards, only with N. American animals). She got a coyote in answer to her question and I got a bowhead whale in answer to mine. Not sure which Native American group is the source of these cards. It’s a really lovely place, there’s a pool and at night I can’t see the lights from any other houses out my window. There’s a park and bike trail just down the hill from her house as well, the bike trail goes along the Missouri River for miles apparently. Makes me wish I brought my bike!

Anyway, things are going well, I’m off to a BBQ/Game of Thrones finale party. More to follow soon!

Petra Banks

Bioarchaeology MA Student

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