- Historic Sites
A search begun in a Washington, D.C., boardinghouse 140 years ago continues today as a $100-million-a-year effort to reunite the U.S. military and American families with their missing soldiers
February/March 2005 | Volume 56, Issue 1
Though there remains to this day some tension over the MLA issue with countries like Vietnam, North Korea, and Burma, JPAC efforts have managed to find and identify close to 1,200 missing soldiers. Today the search for the missing has been as significantly aided by technology as it has by improved political relationships. JPAC’s Central Identification Laboratory in Hawaii (CILHI), in partnership with the Armed Forces DNA Identification Laboratory (AFDIL) in Rockville, Maryland, enables identifications through DNA technology not only on the twentieth century’s missing soldiers, like those found in the field by JPAC’s 18 teams, but even going as far back as the Civil War with cases from the pioneering, doomed Confederate submarine Hunley and the USS Monitor , which sank off the Carolina coast in 1862.
The flat-roofed, slit-windowed, two-story red-brick building 15 miles northwest of Washington, D.C., that houses AFDIL is a reminder of creative architecture’s decade-long holiday in the 1960s. But the lab’s wholly banal exterior belies the gravity of the cases inside. Victims of the September 11 attacks were identified here, as were Uday and Qusay Hussein, the Columbia astronauts, and Michael Blassie, the casualty interred in the Vietnam War’s Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Dead from the ongoing wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are also identified here and correlated with a DNA reference database maintained in a nearby warehouse that stores samples from more than 4.5 million soldiers and civilians working at the Department of Defense.
Average cases from JPAC take a month to complete because the material received contains such limited amounts of DNA. James Canik, the AFDIL deputy director, says DNA work is not like the technology portrayed on popular television shows. “It’s an exacting science, and answers often lead to other questions. Here we are able to work at very low levels of DNA compared with other labs, but [DNA] breaks down over time and Southeast Asia is a particularly difficult environment. The material degrades quickly.” He adds, however, that AFDIL processes an incredible 800 specimens per year. “No other lab in the world can sustain that,” he says.
It is a far cry from Clara Barton sitting in her small office laboring over her hand-printed rolls.
At first no one seemed to believe that Richard Lyons had discovered Clara Barton’s long-lost office. His find did manage temporarily to halt the building’s demolition, and no one doubted that he’d happened on historical relics of some value. But the addresses didn’t match. Clara Barton’s office, according to record, had been at 488½ Seventh Avenue, NW, far different from the current 437, and the area hadn’t changed much since her day. Lyons, whose own father had been missing in action in the South Pacific during World War II until the family discovered him in a hospital three weeks later, vowed not to relinquish the boxes until he was sure the building would be restored and given its historical credit. He persevered, making call after call for months.
Finally, Gary Scott, the regional chief historian with the National Parks Service’s National Capital Region, agreed to look at some of what Lyons had found. Scott later called the discovery one of the “rarest and perhaps most revealing” he had seen in his two-plus decades in the Parks Service. He immediately contacted Andrea Mones at the GSA, the owner of the building. Lyons was vindicated. Altruistic to the end, he ceded everything once he was sure the building would be memorialized. Today it is the only surviving intact boardinghouse in Washington, D.C., from its era, and although plans are incomplete as of this printing, the building is scheduled to open as a children’s museum in 2007. “This links Clara Barton’s two lives,” says Chris Frey, an associate at Noble Preservation Services, which is helping restore the house and planning the museum. “If Richard hadn’t found this building, her life would have been interpreted differently.”
And the mystery of the incongruous addresses? Lyons thinks he has solved that too. “In 1870 the address changed,” he says, “from 488½ to 437, and no one bothered to keep track. It just went missing.”