UNO Software Helps ID Remains of Missing U.S. Service Members

Dec. 27, 2019, 6:45 a.m. ·

Sailors from the U.S.S. Oklahoma identified with help from CoRA software at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. (Photo by Jack Williams, NET News)

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A unique partnership between the University of Nebraska at Omaha and the Department of Defense is using new data-crunching software to solve a massive and solemn puzzle. With tens of thousands of missing U.S. service members from wars over the past century, there’s a new push to identify their remains. Part of that effort is happening inside a hangar at Offutt Air Force Base near Omaha, where a collaboration is speeding up the identification process. This story is part of our "Best of 2019 Signature Story" project.

In a small office at the University of Nebraska at Omaha College of Information Science and Technology, Sachin Pawaskar logs in to his computer like he does every day. He’s a professor there and is showing a visitor a computer program he’s been working on for the past three years. It’s called CoRA, which stands for Co-Mingled Remains Analytics. It’s a way for forensic anthropologists with the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency to more quickly inventory, analyze and match thousands of bones found buried in cemeteries for unknown U.S. service members all over the world.

“Previously this used to be done on a piece of paper and Excel spreadsheets and it was extremely hard for them to kind of pull data from multiple spreadsheets and so on,” Pawaskar said.

The CoRA software allows for those anthropologists to quickly shrink possible matches for co-mingled bones, called Minimum Number of Individuals, or MNI reports.

Sachin Pawaskar at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. (Photo by Jack Williams, NET News)

“It would take one anthropologist two weeks to create an MNI from Excel spreadsheets. Now it’s done like this,” Pawaskar said as he snapped his fingers.

Let’s back up a bit. Finding and identifying the remains of missing U.S. service members is incredibly difficult. With more than 80,000 missing soldiers, sailors and Marines from World War II, the Korean War, Vietnam and many other conflicts, the military is faced with a huge, but important task. In 2013, the Defense Department realized it needed to speed up that process. The original remains identification lab in Hawaii had more work than it could handle, so a second lab was established at Offutt Air Force Base near Omaha.

Inside a massive old hangar, the military built a 30,000 square foot lab to help with the caseload. The lab was established as the lead in a project to identify almost 13,000 bone specimens recovered from the U.S.S. Oklahoma, a ship that was torpedoed and capsized when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941. The remains of 400 sailors and Marines who died on the ship have never been identified. Some of those remains are neatly laid out on identical tables in a quiet room.

Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency Lab at Offutt Air Force Base near Omaha. (Photo by Jack Williams, NET News)

“There are 46 graves associated with the Oklahoma, so we’ve grouped them group 1-through 46,” Forensic anthropologist Dr. Carrie Brown said. She leads the U.S.S. Oklahoma project. “Within each grave, there are 1 to 2 caskets, and in each casket, there are 1 to 22 bundles. Total across all 46 graves, we have 392 bundles of remains. And each bundle of remains can have 3 to 200 bones in them,” Brown said.

With those kinds of numbers, the lab needed some high-tech help to organize and keep track of the identification process. A few years ago, lab director Dr. Franklin Damann was up in the middle of the night taking care of his baby daughter. He came across an article about the University of Nebraska at Omaha’s Capstone program.

“It read to me as though it was a call to local businesses that said, hey, we’ve got this program here at UNO where we’ve got this Capstone class where we bring students in, we work with partnered businesses, anybody that’s interested, to help find an IT solution to a business problem that you may have,” Damann said.

That was in 2016 and began the relationship with Sachin Pawaskar and two of his students at UNO. There’s a personal connection here as well. Dr. Damann’s daughter’s name is Cora, the same as the software that’s helping his lab identify missing service members. In 2015 before the partnership with UNO, there were 86 identifications at the lab. In 2017, there were 186. Last year, 203.

Dr. Franklin Damann and Dr. Carrie Brown at Offutt Air Force Base. (Photo by Jack Williams, NET News)

“To be able to work through a process where you have to sit down and think about what you do and think about why you do what you do,” Damann said. “Why do I take this information? What am I going to do with this? How do I record it and what am I going to do with it in the end?”

Back in his office at UNO, Sachin Pawaskar treats the CoRA project as a second job, working nights and weekends to make the software better. He visits the lab at Offutt Air Force Base every week, troubleshooting with anthropologists on how to make their jobs easier. On his wall is a picture of three sailors from the U.S.S. Oklahoma whose remains have been identified.

“It gives you motivation and inspiration to move forward in building the software and the analytics engine and all that stuff for them,” Pawaskar said.

It’s his way of serving his country and giving the families of thousands of missing U.S. service members closure.

Editor's Note: This story originally aired on March 6, 2019.