Pentagon says it will clear bureaucracy that blocks bringing home war dead

Coincidence? Less than a month since NPR and Pro Publica blew the whistle on the foot-dragging ways of the military to identify the remains of unknown soldiers, the Pentagon is going to bring the process into the 21st century.

The news organizations found the process had been mired in bureaucracy, turf and an aversion to risk, betraying the families of soldiers who were killed, NPR reports today:

To understand these shortcomings, take the case of Pfc. Lawrence Gordon, who was killed in a battle in Normandy in 1944.

Jed Henry, a filmmaker whose grandfather served in Gordon’s unit in France, contacted the Army two years ago as he was looking into Gordon’s case. He asked for Gordon’s files but didn’t get very far. So he sought help from officials in Congress. After nearly a year of research and help from a French historian, he found that Gordon’s name was attached to two bodies in the records.

“I knew that Pfc. Gordon had been killed along with 43 other members of the unit, and I had no idea that any of them hadn’t been returned or hadn’t been found,” Henry says.

He then requested that the military disinter, or dig up, and test the two graves against family DNA. They were in an American cemetery in France.

“And that is when they told us they needed to sort through 3,200 files just to create a short list. And from there they had to create another short list. And if they got it whittled down far enough, they might be able to order a disinterment,” Henry says.

To get this disinterment order, officials told Henry, it could take another year.

So Henry kept researching on his own. He eventually found a mention of a third body that might have been misidentified as a German soldier and buried in a French cemetery. The details matched Gordon’s case, so Henry went to the Germans with his new evidence.

“They basically said, ‘Hey, we’ve looked at your evidence, and if you want to go ahead with the DNA test, that’s fine, we’ll support you,’ ” Henry says. “We were just blown away. We couldn’t believe it was that easy after we’d spent a year fighting with the U.S. just trying to get them to give us some help to see if it was possibly him.”

The Germans put Henry in touch with the French, who dug up the remains and tested the DNA. It matched samples taken from Gordon’s family.

The new process will use DNA, which the military has been reluctant to use before.

The “streamlining” of the process also pushes aside a single bureaucrat in Hawaii who stymied families in their efforts to identify the remains of their loved ones killed in war.