DPAA Nebraska lab: Identifying military heroes through science

  • Published
  • By Kristen Allen, 55th Wing Public Affairs

Offutt Air Force Base is home to one of three Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency labs in the U.S., and one of the things that stands out about the roughly 50 employees is most of the forensic anthropologists are women.

DPAA’s forensic anthropologists analyze and inventory skeletal remains, identify bones, and determine a biological profile in an effort to identify unknown service members who died in previous wars. They also work as scientific recovery experts, helping excavate sites around the world.

“It’s great to be able to go out in the field and do these recoveries, once or twice a year. We’re actually the ones doing the archaeology, looking for the bones, looking for the material evidence,” said Dr. Sarah Kindschuh, DPAA Nebraska lab forensic anthropologist. “It’s nice to be able to bring some closure to people, to feel like the things I do on a daily basis actually mean something to someone, and to be of some kind of service to the country.”

Kindschuh has worked for DPAA since 2015, after a 2013 fellowship in the agency’s Hawaii lab got her really interested in the job. She enjoys learning more about service members she helps identify and meeting family members whenever possible.

“Since we deal mostly with WWII cases, sometimes we’ll get siblings that are in their 90s that are still around or spouses, and those people are great to talk to because they’ve been waiting for this to happen since the 1940s, so for most of their life,” said Kindschuh. “It’s great to be able to give them some resolution.”

Dr. Brittany Walter, another DPAA Nebraska lab team member, knew she wanted to be a forensic anthropologist in 7th grade after reading a book with a strong female lead who was a forensic anthropologist. Despite having this goal at such a young age, it wasn’t always easy to find female role models.

“It wasn’t until grad school that I met some really influential women, both in and outside anthropology. What’s really notable about them is not only did I aspire to be them, but they also inspired me to stay in the field and be a forensic anthropologist,” said Walter. “They also took the time to mentor me and support me.

As someone who came from a single-parent, low-income home, I never really had that safety net. To finally get to grad school and to find those inspirational and supportive women, it definitely helped me be where I am today.”

Her experience growing up is one of the reasons Walter is glad the Nebraska lab gives tours to school-aged children.

“These visits are important because you get to see it; you get to see the day-to-day; you can see all the women here,” said Walter. “To be able to walk into a federal laboratory and see almost all women doing science on the lab floor, not only is it impactful but they get to see that it’s possible.”

Walter really enjoys being part of the mission, especially talking with families of service members she’s helped identify and using what she’s learned throughout her undergraduate and graduate education. One identification that sticks out in her mind is Tech. Sgt. Eugene McBride, a service member from Lincoln who was killed in WWII at the age of 20.

“His sister didn’t think he’d ever be identified because he was adopted, so their family DNA reference samples wouldn’t be helpful in identifying him,” Walter said. “We were able to identify him using radiographs and she was very excited. I went down to Lincoln for the funeral and met the family, and they came here to the lab for a tour. It’s one of my most memorable cases.”

Dr. Carrie Brown, DPAA Nebraska laboratory manager, began her career with DPAA in 2009 after completing thesis research and taking part in a training program with the agency in 2008. She oversees the day-to-day operations and supervises some of the staff. She enjoys talking to people about the agency and its mission.

“DPAA is an amazing place to work because of the stories that we’re able to tell. It's unbelievable to me, who lives this every day, but there are so many people who still don’t know about our mission,” said Brown. “Both my grandfathers were in WWII and my husband is a veteran. The kind of answers we seek are not answers we had to look for in our family, but I know that many, many other families do. So, it’s really important to me that America as a nation continue towards this mission of finding and identifying our nation’s missing.”

Brown said learning and telling the stories of service members who have been identified is what really sticks with her and many other DPAA employees.

“Actually picking up and holding in your hands a ring that someone was wearing and then later seeing that ring in a photograph of him as a pilot with his crew. Just making those connections is something I can’t really describe in words. I often just have goosebumps,” said Brown. “I think of it in terms of that ring was in this place with him and now we’re able to return it to his family. It’s amazing when we get to meet the families and bring them into the stories."

The DPAA lab at Offutt is located in what was once the Glenn L. Martin – Nebraska Bomber Plant, which employed many pioneering women in STEM known as “Rosie the Riveters.”

“It becomes a full-circle story when you think about the fact that those women were here working on building the planes that ended WWII and we’re in the same building identifying not only the men and women who died in WWII but also, for example with the USS Oklahoma, the individuals who died on the very first day of [U.S. involvement in] WWII,” Brown said. “So thinking about that every day when you walk in to work…it’s really an amazing historical circle that we get to be in this place.”

Brown, like Walter, did not have a lot of academic female mentors growing up, so mentoring women who work in the field, both those with DPAA and those in graduate programs, is important to her. Her advice to any school-age girls considering STEM careers is to believe and know that they can achieve their goals despite obstacles that may be put in their way. Though she may have lacked academic mentors, Brown has had a very strong female role model guiding her throughout her life. 

“The person in my family that really embodies the female version of lifelong learning is my grandmother. She grew up Mennonite and left to go to college in a time where there were only two majors for women – domestic tasks or English,” said Brown. “She majored in English at Penn State and during her studies wrote an essay and won a contest and got to meet Eleanor Roosevelt. I’d say if I didn’t have her as my grandma and her willingness to try new things and leave her community and go out into the world, then I wouldn’t be here. All of the things I’ve done, that curiosity and that knowledge, I really attribute to her.”