IN-DEPTH: Finding the fallen
More than 80,000 Americans who went off to war are still listed as missing. Two local families think they know where to find the remains of their lost loved ones, but government red tape is getting in the way of finding the truth.
Bring our brothers home
Paul Sersha has vivid memories of the last time he saw his kid brother, John. It was 1943 and John was leaving for WWII. On his first combat mission, he rode an Army glider that landed behind enemy lines, making his way to a forest in Holland and faced a barrage of Nazi bullets and bombs. On October 30, 1944, his family received a telegram that read "reported missing in action." For seven decades the Sersha family carried the heartache of not knowing what happened to John.
"I wish he was here so we could be together and go out into the woods hunting and fishing," said John's 96-year-old brother, Paul.
In 2013, the family got a call from Danny Keay, an active Army sergeant stationed in Germany, with some startling news. In his spare time, he searches for WWII service members still missing in action and believes he knows where John is buried. Keay was going through some old war records and discovered documents that show John's remains might be buried in a tomb of unknowns at an American Cemetery in Belgium. Keay told the Fox 9 Investigators several things indicate that the remains are John's.
Even dental charts show the person buried in grave number 30 was missing the same five teeth as John. The family has asked the Department of Defense to exhume the remains and collect samples to verify it's John, but are still awaiting an answer. Paul would like to see his kid brother come home so they can one day rest together in their home state.
Lawsuit to get uncle's remains
Doug Kelder's family from Shell Lake, Wis. had to sue the Pentagon to disinter what were believed to be the remains of their uncle, Bud.
"Bud would like to be home, Bud doesn't want to be in the Philippines," said Doug Kelder.
Bud was a WWII POW who survived the Bataan Death March only to die of malnutrition in a Japanese prison camp. A few years ago, his family got a hold of some military records that indicated he was buried in a tomb of unknowns in the Philippines. The lawsuit forced the Pentagon to take action, but so far, its scientists have identified only 3 bones that belong to Bud. The rest of his remains, which were co-mingled with other unknowns, have yet to be identified.
Doug Kelder said the Army told him the family could have the 3 bones and will get more as scientists are able to identify them.
"I never belonged to the book of the month club and I sure don't want to sign on for the bone of the month club. Give me all of him," he said.
An easy solution?
A DNA expert hired by the Kelders believes there's an easy solution.
"If modern technologies were applied to those samples, it is my opinion far more skeletal remains could be associated with the Kelder case," DNA expert Ed Huffine said.
Huffine used to run the Armed Forces DNA identification lab. He has helped identify the remains of thousands of people including ones who perished at the World Trade Center on Sept. 11 and said the Pentagon is using old technology DNA testing that's slow, laborious and way too expensive
"If they updated to the state of the art, he says they could be identifying hundreds of unknowns a month instead of the current pace of less than a hundred a year," Huffine said.
The Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency is part of the Defense Department, and is the agency in charge of identifying the missing. The Fox 9 Investigators asked the agency if it's planning to change its identification methods. We did not get a direct answer. Instead, we were told the agency uses all types of DNA testing when appropriate.
For years, the slow pace of identifying remains has angered many in Congress. Earlier this year, the agency was reorganized. It was formally known as "JPAC."