Bringing them home; Lab's mission is to recover and identify the 90,000 American soldiers missing in action.
At first, Thomas D. Holland wasn't interested in a job identifying those who had gone missing in America's wars.
But the director of the military's Central Identification Laboratories in Hawaii kept calling. An archaeologist, Holland had published several articles in the Journal of Forensic Science on determining the gender, race and stature of skeletons from fragments.
The year was 1991. Holland and his wife were content living in Missouri, where he was a curator at the University of Missouri's museum. Yet gradually he found himself influenced by an important historical event: the 50th anniversary of the bombing of Pearl Harbor.
"Every time I turned on the TV, there was Hawaii again," Holland recalled. "In January 1992, I said, `OK, I'll do it for three years.'"
The job proved more to Holland's liking than he could have imagined.
Today, he is the scientific director of the facility in Hawaii, which is the largest forensic anthropology laboratory in the world. It is operated by the Department of Defense's Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command, located at Hickham Air Force Base near Honolulu. Its mission is to identify the roughly 90,000 Americans who are listed as missing in action and presumed dead since the early 20th century, among them 78,000 from World War II, 8,100 from the Korean War and 1,800 from the Vietnam War. About half are considered "unrecoverable" because they were lost at sea.
Advances in forensic science and DNA testing are making it possible to identify a soldier or sailor on scant physical evidence. But Holland, 50, said that even today, the most reliable method is through dental records.
"Already this year, the lab has identified 23 from World War II, 20 from Korea and 20 from Southeast Asia," Holland said with obvious pride. "We are identifying somebody about every two and a half days."
Not long ago, the laboratory put a name to a soldier from World War I. His remains had been discovered in France by a construction crew.
More than 400 people with a wide range of specialties - from archaeology to criminal investigation to DNA processing - are engaged in the work of the laboratory. Eighteen search and recovery teams travel around the world to retrieve remains, and any evidence that could make positive identifications possible. The teams have tramped through the jungles of the Amazon, where planes were lost en route to North Africa during World War II, and trekked along the icy peaks of the Himalayas. "We lost several hundred aircraft flying the hump from India to China," Holland remarked.
The teams are on humanitarian missions and are unarmed. Earlier in his career, Holland found himself in remote and sometimes dangerous spots. In the early 1990s, he was on teams that visited Cambodia.
"The Khmer Rouge were still very active, so the missions there were something of an adventure," he recalled. "We were on one recovery where the Khmer Rouge didn't want us there anymore. They rocketed our base camp." The team quickly withdrew.
In 1995, Holland and others from the lab were in the Iraqi desert investigating the crash site of Navy pilot Lt. Cmdr. Michael S. Speicher, who was lost in January of 1991 during the Gulf War at age 33. Controversy surrounded what had happened to Speicher. Some people were certain that he had survived and was being held hostage in Iraq by Saddam Hussein's henchmen.
"In the case of Speicher, the evidence showed the ejection seat had worked," Holland said. "He parachuted into the desert. What happened to him after that we don't know. It's western Iraq. The desert is a pretty empty place out there."
Back when he arrived at the University of Missouri for his freshman year, archaeology piqued Holland's interest. He was on a work-study program and took a job in the archaeology department's laboratory. A printmaker and painter, he majored in fine arts and then stayed on at the university to earn a master's degree and a doctorate in bio-archaeology.
In his current position, Holland reviews all the evidence for each case and writes the final report, detailing the justification for an identification. Before the evidence reaches him, it has been through a rigorous peer review by departments at the lab, each independent of the other.
Field work was fascinating, Holland said, but it allowed for involvement in only one part of the process. "Some cases take six months, a year or five years," he explained. "A lot of times you never know what happened to that case." Now he sees the pieces of the puzzle come together.
Holland still travels a good deal. While on long plane rides, he writes fiction based on forensics. He has produced two books: "One Drop of Blood" is now in paperback, and "KIA" will be released in January by Simon and Schuster.
But Holland has no plans to give up his day job.
"In terms of forensics, this is the ideal job," Holland said. "Your average forensic job is dealing with murder, abuse, rape. It's nice to assist and bring bad guys to justice. You often think, `Just how slimy are individuals?'
"What we do is so different," he continued. "It has all the intellectual satisfaction of solving these complex puzzles. Our country asked them to do something onerous and they did it. In many cases they died horrible deaths, but they did something noble. You go home and you don't feel ashamed to be a member of the human race."
`Let the Dead Bury the Dead: Forensic Science Behind the Recovery and Identification of U.S. War Casualties'
What: A talk by Thomas D. Holland
When: 7:30 tonight
Where: Cafe at the Worcester Art Museum, 18 Salisbury St., Worcester. Hosted by the Worcester Chapter of the Archaeological Institute of America
How much: Free and open to the public
CUTLINE: (PHOTO 1) Forensic anthropologist Thomas D. Holland in the Iraqi desert investigating the crash site of Navy Lt. Cmdr. Michael S. Speicher, who was shot down in 1991. (PHOTO 2) The Joint POW Accounting Command (JPAC) Central Identification Laboratories at Hickham Air Force Base, Hawaii. (PHOTO 3) Thomas D. Holland in Cambodia with a search and recovery team in the early 1990s. Holland will speak at 7:30 tonight at the Worcester Art Museum.