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How the U.S. military's fallen are identified, prepared for burial

Senior Airman Devon Garner-Klingbeil stands near transfer cases containing the remains of Army Spc. Brittany B. Gordo and Army Sgt. Robert J. Billings on Oct. 15, 2012 at Dover Air Force Base, Del. According to the Department of Defense, Gordon of St. Petersburg and Billings of Clarksville, Va., died in Afghanistan. [Associated Press (2012)]
Senior Airman Devon Garner-Klingbeil stands near transfer cases containing the remains of Army Spc. Brittany B. Gordo and Army Sgt. Robert J. Billings on Oct. 15, 2012 at Dover Air Force Base, Del. According to the Department of Defense, Gordon of St. Petersburg and Billings of Clarksville, Va., died in Afghanistan. [Associated Press (2012)]
Published May 30, 2016

During his time at the Dover Port Mortuary, John Harper was part of what is called the Dental Evidence Response Team, which uses digital X-ray equipment to record dental records of a service member who dies overseas.

Those records are then used by a forensic expert to identify the body.

The team takes part in an 11-step process that begins when the remains arrive at Dover Air Force Base in Dover, Del.

RELATED: Identifying fallen U.S. soldiers carries a high emotional cost

Since Sept. 11, 2001, there have been 6,888 overseas troop deaths in ongoing operations, according to the latest Pentagon statistics. Of those, 5,388 were killed in action; the rest were the result of noncombat deaths that can include anything from illness to injury to suicide.

There are two separate military organizations involved in turning over a body to the family — the Armed Forces Medical Examiner System and the Air Force Mortuary Affairs Operations. Both are based at Dover.

The process begins when a body arrives at Dover. After what is known as a dignified transfer — when the flag-draped metal case is taken off the airplane — the body is first checked by an explosives ordnance technician.

"We don't want any unexploded ordnance in the room," said Air Force Maj. Tim Wade, explaining that some bodies might still contain bullets, shrapnel or other material that could be dangerous to anyone examining a body.

The body is then removed from the transfer case, photographed and documented. Then the remains are tagged and processed for fingerprints and dental records. This is the step where dental evidence team members like Harper do their job.

The body is then transferred to the mortuary unit, where the body is prepared for burial. It was during these six steps that morticians worked on the remains of Army Spc. Corey Kowall, killed in Afghanistan on Sept. 20, 2009.