Forensic dentistry is sometimes the only way a severely mutilated body can be identified. During the war, Army Air Force dentists from the 8th Air Force expanded on existing Army medical forms by creating a more detailed Flying Personnel Dental Identification Form that all pilots and aircrews had to complete. As a result, many aircrew bodies that otherwise would have gone unnamed were positively identified.
The Korean War saw a major administrative shift in how dentists performed their duties. Prior to the conflict, dental teams were organically attached to units under the unit support program. During the Korean War, the concept of area dental support was implemented. Among other things, it removed dentists from operating in temporary facilities near the front lines to higher-quality fixed facilities farther back.
Though Air Force dentists were stationed in Southeast Asia in the early 1960s, their numbers were few, and it was not until 1966 that the Dental Service received authorization to increase staffing levels that enabled it to fulfill its mission of providing dental support on a par with that provided in the United States.
Like other medical personnel in the Air Force and other branches, Air Force dentists and technicians in Southeast Asia volunteered for such humanitarian projects as People-to-People, Dental Med-Cap, and Civic Action. Dental teams would travel throughout the countryside instructing countless civilians in oral hygiene and performing dental work (usually extractions).
The Air Force Dental Service’s next major combat dentistry action occurred in Operation Desert Shield/Desert Storm. About 97 officers and 259 technicians were deployed in support, and theirs proved to be the busiest of the health care components. The reason was the higher-than-average volume of reservist call-ups. It was discovered that about 10 percent of the reservists were dentally unqualified for overseas duty. This problem was significantly reduced when Congress passed legislation creating a dental insurance program for reservists.
Pioneering Air Force forensic dentists developing mass disaster identification protocols for use in aviation disasters had their work put to the test in four mass disasters (two aviation) that occurred in the 1970s and 1980s: Tenerife, Spain; Jonestown, in Guyana; Beirut, Lebanon; and Gander, Newfoundland. Col. Kenton Hartman was an Air Force oral pathologist and a member of teams who worked on identifying bodies in them.
On March 27, 1977, at Tenerife airport in the Canary Islands, a KLM Boeing 747, attempting to take off, collided with a Pan Am 747 still on the runway, killing 583 people. Because the accident occurred on Spanish territory, Hartman and the rest of the team encountered unexpected bureaucratic delays that ultimately required State Department intervention to allow the bodies of the Pan Am flight to be flown to Dover Air Force Base mortuary in Delaware for identification.
On Nov. 18, 1979, American evangelical cult leader Jim Jones led his followers in a mass suicide ritual at Jonestown, an American colony in northwestern Guyana, in which 918 people died. In this case, Hartman recalled their main problem was not a foreign bureaucracy; it was nature – tropical heat. Within a week, Hartman said in an Armed Forces Institute of Pathology oral history, the victims’ flesh “had turned into a paste-like compound; it looked like mud. The odor was just horrendous.”
The bodies were transferred to the mortuary at Dover AFB for an examination and identification process that eventually took 12 weeks. Hartman remembered that, because of the huge volume and advanced state of decay, “maggots became a huge problem.” Various efforts were tried to control the population but, he said, “Nothing worked. Eventually, people became conditioned … and just literally gutted it out. …” Hartman added, “What happened that’s of historical significance in the Jonestown disaster was that this was the first time that an automated, computer-assisted dental identification system was put into effect.” Developed by forensic dentist Air Force Col. Bill Morlang and an Air Force computer specialist, the sorting and matching software program has been refined and updated over the years.