One mother continued setting a place at the dinner table every night for her son — just in case.
Not every family of the 82,000 American soldiers who have gone missing in wars since World War II will get answers, but a group at Brigham Young University is hoping to help some of them learn what happened to their loved ones.
“They still want to know,” said Jill Crandell, the director of the BYU Center for Family History and Genealogy. “There are some very elderly widows out there who still want to know what happened to their husbands.”
For the past year, a handful of people at BYU have been working with the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency to find living relatives of missing soldiers who could be candidates for DNA testing in order to match remains of unidentified soldiers with families. The agency reached out to BYU, which has the only family history degree in the nation, to help find living relatives of missing soldiers.
Archaeology units use information on where missing soldiers’ remains might be and search for them. Once remains are found, the next step is solving the mystery of who they might be so families can begin getting answers.
Most of the next of kin in the soldiers’ files are deceased. That’s where BYU steps in. Students do high-quality research studying obituaries, wills and census reports — sometimes from foreign countries — to track down living relatives for DNA testing. That sometimes means creating large family trees that can include going back four or five generations before going down the tree again.
Crandell calls it the perfect project for the center’s mission.
The center has been assigned 66 cases and finished 48 in the year it has worked with the Army. It does not get an official report back informing them if any of its research has led to remains being identified.
After the team identifies family, the next step is to call them and see if they would be willing to take a DNA test.
They call families and give their credentials so family members don’t think it’s a scam.
Lisa Stokes, the project’s research fellow, makes two to three phone calls a day for the project.
“You don’t always have the luxury of finding a family member,” Stokes said. “Sometimes you call and leave a message and they don’t call back.”
When they do get a family member on the phone it’s not uncommon for the team to hear stories about the missing soldier.
“We are constantly reminded that these are real people and people who aren’t that different from you and your family,” said Melanie Torres, a recent BYU graduate.
Some families wonder why they’re just now being contacted. The team explains that the Army strives for all soldiers to return home and that the DNA technology is still relatively new.
Finding missing relatives isn’t easy. It’s difficult to find information on living people due to privacy issues. The information they find during their research is kept on a secure server and kept private.
For Kimberly Brown, a student who has worked on the project, she loves connecting families. Brown, who has family members in the military and who has tracked down her grandmother’s and husband’s biological families, said it’s a way to give back.
“This was a very small thing that I can do to help bring closure for families that may still need to go through a healing process,” Brown said.
Doing research and hearing about the soldiers makes they realize that every name was a real person.
“I get to see these families, I get to see people and I get attached to them, so when you close a case and you put it away, it’s like putting away a part of you you were really involved in for a while,” Brown said.