BYU family history students connect missing soldiers to their families

A group of BYU students has answered the Army’s call for genealogical reinforcements.

With more than 82,000 Americans still missing from conflicts dating back to World War II, students at the BYU Center for Family History and Genealogy have been working with the Army and the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency to return the remains of missing soldiers to their family members.

“Normally in our family history work, we are going as far back through as many generations as we can,” said Sydney Bjork, one of the students who worked on the project this past year. “But this sort of feels like reverse family history work. We start with a soldier and then look for the closest living relative they have.”

The Army sought help with this project from BYU, which has the only family history degree in the nation. Other partners in this project include historians who research where there might be remains of missing soldiers. Archaeology units take that information and get digging. And it’s BYU’s job to find the relatives.

Since starting on the project, the students have been assigned just more than 65 cases and have finished about 48 of them. After the cases are complete, students submit a report to the Army with the results of their research, the potential DNA donors and the contact information of the soldier’s relatives.

Professor Jill Crandell standing amid her two students in the JFSB courtyard
From left: Student Melanie Torres, Professor Jill Crandell, and student Kimberly Brown.

“Family history is something that’s really tender to all of us because it’s about family and we know how much our own families mean to us,” said Professor Jill Crandell, director of BYU’s Center. “We actually become attached to those families and there is a certain amount of inspiration involved when working on these cases.”

Not all cases are created equally. Some cases take three hours to solve. Some cases take three weeks to solve. However long it takes, the students on the project always feel an overwhelming sense of joy that they were able to help in the process of bringing families closer together.

For these students, this project is more than names and dates; it’s not just casework, each one is a meaningful story. Here’s a sample of the stories they’ve learned and worked on:

  • One mother continued for decades to set an extra place at the dinner table, just in case her son came home.
  • A still-living widow of a WWII soldier still longs to know at age 97 what happened to her husband.
  • One family of Italian immigrants has two brothers missing in action.

Melanie Torres and some of her fellow students who worked on these cases have close family members who have served in the military so this work really hits home for them.

“My grandfather was in the military, my great-grandfather was in World War II and my husband is in the Air Force. It is something that just really connects to my heart,” said Torres.

-Joe Hadfield, University Communications

Do Military Children Struggle with Reintegration When a Deployed Parent Comes Home?

It should come as no surprise to learn that being a child in a military family can be challenging. According to the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, infants, 18 year olds, and all the ages in between can be negatively impacted by a parent’s deployment. They can suffer from sleep problems, aggression, and alcohol/drug abuse. Because of these difficulties stemming from a parent being away, one would assume that their return home would end these issues and allow the children to move past them. However, one would be wrong.

In a recent study, School of Family Life professor Jeremy Yorgason found that, for some children, the transition was quite difficult: “Parents reported relatively low levels of military children’s reintegration difficulty overall… but…parents who experienced depressive symptoms…relationship uncertainty…and interference from a partner…indicated that their children had more difficulty with reintegration.” These difficulties were stable over the three months that the study was conducted.  Dr. Yorgason believes that understanding the results of this study will help military families: “Helping military couples lower depression, strengthen their relationship, and be more harmonious in their parenting and family interactions would seem to help military children with the post-deployment reintegration process.”  He further hopes that: “military family policy and programming will benefit from a better understanding of the relationship dynamics of the post-deployment transition so that military families can be better supported during this challenging time.”

Dr. Yorgason and his colleagues will continue their research, this time with more families over a longer period of time. They will focus on “…the marital processes that occur during the post-deployment phase, and…how reintegration difficulties fluctuate across the transition.” Dr. Yorgason’s elucidation of the problems faced by children in a recently reunited military family will no doubt prove valuable for both further research and the military.

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