FORT LEE, Va. (April 15, 2010) – To the personnel on site, they were barely visible but recognizable enough to warrant proceeding with meticulous caution.
“You’ll have to dig around it gently,” warned the man in charge. “You don’t want to disturb anything else that could be buried beside it.”
The crew of six had just discovered what resembled human skeletal remains buried in a makeshift grave located just off a dirt road in a wooded area. They were acting on information that children were interred there.
“The abductor has said he buried the remains here,” said Marine Staff Sgt. Brian Smith, the man in charge, “so we sent out a search and recovery team.”
The skeletal remains are not real, and the search and recovery team isn’t some crack forensic unit like the ones seen on the TV show “CSI.” They are mortuary affairs Soldiers and Marines who are essentially crime scene investigators and technicians participating in a unique training exercise dubbed the Unidentified Human Remains Seminar.
“This seminar is designed to give participants the opportunity to learn how to locate clandestine graves, how to identify them, how to map it out and how to proceed in excavating it, all the while maintaining forensic evidence,” said Dr. Lisa Leppo a forensic anthropologist assigned to the Joint Mortuary Affairs Center, Fort Lee.
The training began Monday and will wrap up today at Fort Lee’s Mortuary Affairs Training Area. It included about 30 Soldiers from the 49th Quartermaster Group’s 111th and 54th Quartermaster Companies located at Fort Lee, Soldiers from the 311th and 246th Quartermaster Company of the U.S. Army Reserve in Puerto Rico, and Marines from various locations.
The Virginia Institute of Forensic Science and Medicine, located in Richmond, collaborated with the JMAC for the seminar, providing a number of nationally known experts to support the instruction.
Leppo, also JMAC’s chief of training, said the first-of-its-kind training centered on crime scenes and buried remains, something in which military personnel aren’t normally trained.
“They get search and recovery exercise (in advanced individual training), which historically does not include locating clandestine graves,” she said, noting that military mortuary affairs personnel normally work with remains found above ground. “Military personnel typically go out when there’s a major incident, like an airplane or helicopter crash. This is kind of preparing them to handle evidence in a medical-legal arena. The Armed Forces medical examiner has declared every battlefield casualty a forensic investigation – so we’re trying to give them hands-on training to preserve evidence, understand what forensics is all about, and how important it plays into an identification for the medical examiner.”
For the training, participants were separated into four teams and provided various scenarios relating to the whereabouts of victims. Participants were responsible for locating the area, properly marking it, making observations, recording terrain features and other surroundings and undertaking the painstaking process to excavate remains and gather- ing evidence that may accompany them.
The 54th’s Spc. Earl Harden said the exercise was a refresher to say the least and opened up another side of mortuary affairs to put it best.
“We learned how to specify the area that we need to excavate, something that we were taught but never put into use,” said the Soldier who has been deployed. “When we’re downrange, we do the job that we train for and are familiar with. We don’t practice this, so it’s actually a privilege to come out here and put these skills to use.”
Burial indicators as it relates to entomology and botany are skills mortuary affairs couldn’t hope to get in regular training, but they received an enlightening block of instruction on the subject from Dr. Jason Byrd, a VIFSM-affiliated forensic entomologist. Byrd taught Soldiers how to make observations with respect to plant growth on grave sites and insect inhabitation
“We can use entomology to tell investigators how long an individual has been dead,” he said, “and we can use botany to tell how long an individual has been in the grave site itself.”
Participants were also provided instruction on medial and odontological evidence, creating biological profiles from anthropological evidence and canine search and recovery.
The instruction taught during the seminar, although not routine training subjects, will benefit military personnel at the senior level. That’s when they’re likely be to slotted in a position with the Joint Prisoners of War/Missing in Action Accounting Command located in Hawaii. The JPAD has the mission of recovering the remains of missing Americans during past conflicts.
“Usually, when they become noncommissioned officers they get the option to volunteer for JPAD,” said Staff Sgt. Matthew Biggs, a JMAC instructor. “They search for buried remains all over the world – Cambodia, Europe, China, even in North Korea – so the training will help.”
In the meantime, said Leppo, the training can be useful to military personnel when civilian law enforcement authorities need to be augmented in the conduct of their duties.
“Our hope is to get out to the law enforcement community that we have mortuary affairs personnel who are trained in this, and they could be able to assist you,” she said. “They won’t have jurisdiction but they would be an invaluable asset to law enforcement who need a little help.”