DNA debate connected to 70-year fight to bring a hero home

Lt. Alexander 'Sandy' Nininger

NORTH KINGSTOWN, R.I. (WPRI) – A former Rhode Island State representative who is one of seven plaintiffs in a federal lawsuit against the government agency assigned to recover and identify American military personnel who are missing in action, is concerned about the agency’s choices when it comes to DNA identification.

And John Patterson of North Kingstown is not alone, according to a Texas man who filed a similar lawsuit and won, provoking the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA) to recover his cousin last year.

For John Eakin of Helotes, Texas, the focus was Private Bud Kelder, who died in 1942 after somehow surviving the Bataan Death March.

Lt. Alexander “Sandy” Nininger, a Florida native, is Patterson’s late uncle, the nation’s first World War II recipient of the Medal of Honor.

“He was known as ‘The Quiet Hero,'” Patterson said.

Nininger was 23 years old when he died during a ferocious battle in the Phillipines only weeks into World War II.

More than seven decades later, Patterson is convinced he has proven his uncle is buried in the Manilla American Cemetery, but he has yet to convince the DPAA to disinter the body and identify him.

“They’re not transparent. They’re not accountable. They’re very bureaucratic,” Patterson said, referring to the DPAA. “And they don’t answer their mail. They don’t answer their phone calls, treating us almost as the enemy.”

John Patterson thumbs through decades of paperwork.

Eakin has a similar opinion.

“They stonewalled me,” he said. “They fought me on every technical issue that they could.”

Patterson and Eakin both provided the DPAA with government documentation to show where their respective loved ones were buried, right down to the grave number.

Eakin’s research that also pushed the DPAA toward the Manilla American Cemetery proved accurate.

Patterson and Nininger’s descendants have been denied requests to exhume his remains five times. He calls the DPAA’s reasoning “gobbledy-gook.”

“If you want to disinter the remains based on the original recommendations, based on the work that the family has done, you do it,” Patterson said. “And to just keep paperwork, paperwork, paperwork, bureaucracy, bureaucracy, bureaucracy. It’s stupid.”

A spokesperson for the DPAA, which receives more than $110 million in annual federal funding, told Target 12 the agency does not comment on pending litigation.

Agency statistics indicate 164 U.S. service members and civilians were identified in 2016, which was double the number in previous years.

While both Eakin and Patterson are confident the current lawsuit will prompt the agency to eventually recover the remains of Nininger and the six other soldiers mentioned in filing, they are concerned about what type of DNA testing will be conducted.

Eakin said as he researched his lawsuit, experts made it clear that nuclear DNA testing is the “gold standard” of the science.

“The use of nuclear DNA is so far superior,” Eakin said. “But their own documentation suggests they use mitochondrial DNA testing more often. What they’re doing is intentional. They know there are better techniques available.”

A Department of Defense Power Point analysis obtained by Target 12 acknowledges mtDNA takes longer than its nuclear counterpart.

The DPAA website addresses the issue, stating mtDNA testing is “highly effective in compromised skeletal cases,” which could apply to MIA remains from World War II.

But another concern for Patterson is that even according to the government, nuclear DNA testing can use parents and siblings, while mtDNA testing requires a maternal relative.

Patterson said that will not work in his uncle’s case.

“MtDNA testing has to follow the female line of the family, and we don’t have the offspring to do that,” he said.

The DNA debate is a fight for another day for Patterson and Eakin, who agree the first step is winning the lawsuit and forcing the DPAA to recover the remains.

“I’m confident in the law,”Eakin said, while acknowledging there are no guarantees in court. “If it’s applied the way it was in the Kelder case, Sandy Nininger and all the others will be coming home in short order.”

According to court documents, a response from the defendants in the lawsuit is expected late next month.

Send tips to Target 12 Investigator Walt Buteau at wbuteau@wpri.com and follow him on Twitter @wbuteau