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AP and IB America History Students Discover History at Offutt Air Force Base

Librarian, Colleen Nieland, and AP students Luka Morris and Natalie Ruckman listen intently as Dr. Penny Minturn answers their questions.

Librarian, Colleen Nieland, and AP students Luka Morris and Natalie Ruckman listen intently as Dr. Penny Minturn answers their questions.

Librarian, Colleen Nieland, and AP students Luka Morris and Natalie Ruckman listen intently as Dr. Penny Minturn answers their questions.

Librarian, Colleen Nieland, and AP students Luka Morris and Natalie Ruckman listen intently as Dr. Penny Minturn answers their questions.

AP and IB America History Students Discover History at Offutt Air Force Base

November 9, 2018

Field trips offer students a chance to see how their in-class curriculum can be applied in the real world. On October 19th, some of Mr. Wilson’s AP and IB students were given such an opportunity to experience the “rewriting of history” at Omaha’s historical Offutt Air Force base. Students received a guided bus tour of the military base led by Ryan Hansen, and a lecture on the use of DNA to identify fallen soldiers, and other information regarding the DPAA.
Housed in the Martin bomber building at Offutt air force base, the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency or DPAA’s mission is to investigate and attempt the recovery of all U.S. military declared MIA servicemen during past military conflicts from WWII through Vietnam. The DPAA has successfully identified 2492 fallen soldiers since the early 1980s (all of DPAA not just Offutt) and sent them home to their families to properly rest. The DPAA lab at Offutt was started in 2012 in preparation for the disinterment of the 400 men lost in the sinking of the USS Oklahoma during the bombing at Pearl Harbor.
Between 600 and 700 people currently work for DPAA all over the world. However, that does not include the many people who only work on one mission, or the DPAA’s volunteers. For an individual mission, teams are usually comprised of between 15 and 25 Americans, and sometimes as many as 100 local laborers. On a typical Offutt led mission, there are usually 1 or 2 civilians, and anywhere from 13-23 military personal involved in the recovery process. Linguists are often part of the military crew and are often also naturalized US citizens (immigrants from the countries in which the missions typically take place). However, for work sites located in countries, such as France or other European nations, DPAA must contact local governments to ask for linguist recommendations. Typically, a good linguist is fluent not only in the language but the local customs and social rules of the area as well.
During the field trip, students had the privilege to learn about the DPAA first hand from the division’s head Anthropologist and Forensic Bioarcheologist, Dr. Penny Minturn. Dr. Minturn generously answered many student questions about the DPAA, as well as clarifying what exactly is being accomplished and how they are doing so. She explained the lengthy process of DNA comparing and identifying, stating, “The DNA process begins with a sample from the bone we’ve recovered being sent to our laboratory (AFDIL) in Delaware. AFDIL must extricate DNA and then replicate it in the laboratory so that it is readable. When AFDIL reports DNA results to us, it can only work for identification if we have a known relative to compare it to. If our unknown remains belong to who we think it does, then his DNA will share patterns with a known relative. Without the DNA of relatives, we have nothing to compare his to, and he will likely remain an unknown. We have gathered DNA samples from relatives for several years. Our database is incredibly private and protected. It is never used for anything except to compare to our unknowns.”
Dr. Minturn relayed to the students that while the job and the chance of not making progress can be challenging and disheartening, the rewards outweigh the challenges.” For me personally, “Minturn commented, “it’s hard when I’m not finding anything, or when I have to walk away from a site without any positive results. Sites that are physically challenging, like being incredibly steep or incredibly hot, or have lots of leeches, are difficult to stay focused on sometimes!”
The US military give their members a promise that no one will be left behind, and that means even when someone goes missing, they (the military) will attempt to recover his or her remains so they may rest in peace on U.S. soil. Dr. Minturn revealed the satisfaction that making progress invokes in her,” This {job} allows me to show our military that I support them and appreciate the sacrifices they’ve made for me. Being able to see that someone we helped locate has been returned to their family is a wonderful feeling. Meeting the families and seeing how much it means to them that the US kept their promise (even after 50, 60, 70 years!) is a wonderful benefit of the job.”
Many students had a similar reaction to the experience (fieldtrip), as Minturn has when doing her job. Although the field trip lasted for a mere 3 hours, it has left a lasting impact on the students in attendance. AP senior, Natalie Ruckman was inspired by this amazing opportunity, to pursue a career in math or science and IB senior Madison Reed shared that, “I had a great experience learning that we have the technology right here in Nebraska to find people’s family members and friends that have been missing for decades. It is inspiring to know that families can finally be at ease and are finally able to bury their lost family/friends”. Reed and Luka Morris expressed that they were not sure what to expect before the excursion occurred but found the trip to be a fascinating experience.
Reed confirmed that fieldtrips such as this, enhance and help students understand history in its full importance and comprehend its true impact on the present, “I think learning that there are over 400 lost soldiers just from the U.S.S. Oklahoma that sunk during the Pearl Harbor attack was wildly interesting. I think a lot of people don’t realize how many lives were lost that day, and it was interesting to learn that after some of the ships were raised, people had to go in and look for remains that had been underwater for several decades. What’s more interesting is the fact that they have been able to identify about half of the soldiers from the U.S.S. Oklahoma after decades of being lost.”

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