By C. Todd Lopez
WASHINGTON (Sept. 30, 2016) -- The remains of an unknown number of what are presumed to be American Soldiers who fought at and died during the Battle of Monterrey, part of the Mexican-American War, were returned Sept. 28, to the Port Mortuary at Dover Air Force Base, Delaware.
The remains come from a site in Monterrey, Mexico, where human remains have been uncovered over a series of excavations that have taken place over the last 20 years. The Mexican government's National Institute of Anthropology and History has studied the remains from the site and determined that some of those found are likely to be American Soldiers who were killed during the Mexican-American War, which was fought between April 25, 1846 and February 3, 1848.
Those remains have been turned over to the United States.
"This is a good institute, an equivalent of our FBI-level forensics," said Gregory L. Gardner, who serves as branch chief for the Past Conflicts Repatriation Branch at Army Human Resources Command at Fort Knox, Kentucky. "They believe [the remains] are all American. They would not have released them to us if they had not believed that."
The Army got involved in repatriation of the remains about five years ago, Gardner said.
"It took us quite a while, working with the State Department, to get the Armed Forces medical examiner down to Mexico," he said. "We were able to do that in early 2015, and the Armed Forces medical examiner went down to Mexico with another anthropologist and they were able to view the remains there in Monterrey. They were allowed to take DNA samples of the remains, and they brought those DNA samples back to the Armed forces DNA identification laboratory at Dover Air Force Base."
While not all the remains made available to the examiner yielded usable DNA samples, several of the DNA samples were able to be sequenced, Gardner said.
"They concluded they were European in origin, which led them to believe that they were probably American service members from the Mexican-American War," he said.
News of that finding was shared with the Mexican government and the Army, and earlier this year, the Mexican Foreign Service allowed for repatriation of the remains to the United States for more testing.
Col. Andrew Doehring, deputy commander of the Army Reserve Aviation Command, along with three Army warrant officers, flew two C-12 Huron aircraft from Fort Knox to Monterrey on Sept. 27, to collect the remains. It's something Doehring said he is immensely proud to have been part of.
"Something like this doesn't come across your desk every day, especially with remains that are basically 170 years old," he said. "When they came to us and asked, it was kind of like, this is special. It's a historical event. That was a big a part of it as well.
"It was really inherent, it being Army Soldiers to recover down there, we really wanted it to be an Army mission," he said. "It's something we really wanted to do, it's the right thing to do, it's Army taking care of Soldiers that have bene missing since 170 years ago."
Doehring said he and his team spent about 90 minutes on the ground in Mexico and then flew back to the United States. They stopped at Fort Hood, Texas, for refueling and crew rest, and then departed early Wednesday morning for Dover Air Force Base.
At Dover, Gardner said, the military performed a "standard repatriation and dignified transfer of remains," similar to what happens when fallen Soldiers are brought home from Iraq or Afghanistan.
"Any time we can bring Americans Soldiers home and put them in their rightful burial place, American soil, then that's the ultimate thing," Doehring said. "It honors their service and everything they fought for."
Now that the remains are back in the United States, they have been turned over to the Armed Forces Medical Examiner, Gardner said. "So now we start the process of trying to confirm that these are all Americans."
It's believed that around 11 individuals are included in the remains, though determining the exact number of individuals represented will be part of the work done by the Armed Forces Medical Examiner.
Gardner said that right now, one family from Tennessee has stepped forward to say they believe one of those among the remains might be a relative of theirs. He said that if more families are able to do the same, and able to provide family DNA reference samples, then identification of individuals within the remains might be possible. But he also said those involved in the project remain cautious about what can actually be done.
"We'll do our best to identify any individuals," he said. "But I think that everybody involved in this project understands that's going to be difficult."
He said if it were possible to confirm the identity of any of the remains, then those remains would be turned over to next of kin for burial.
One factor complicating the matter of identification is that many of the Soldiers were likely recent immigrants to the United States, he said. Another is that record keeping from the period is not what is common today.
"The records were not that great from that period," he said. "We don't have what we would have today from a Soldier, with next of kin and all that. And many of the next of kin might not have come to the United States."
What's more likely, Gardner said, is that the remains will be determined to be American Soldiers, but that their individual identities will remain unknown.
He said if it proves possible to separate out individuals from the collection of remains, then those remains will likely be buried separately, as an "unknowns."
For the rest of the remains, he said, it's likely they will be buried as a group of unknowns from the Mexican-American War.
The final decision on what to do with the remains will determined "much higher up" in the government, Gardner said.
The Army would also like to find out, if possible, what unit the remains came from. Gardner said there were many units involved in Mexican-American War, including units from Mississippi, Tennessee and Texas.