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AFMES forensic anthropologist also serves as ANG training manager

Image of woman wearing a mask, looking at a computer screen. Rachel Johnson, Armed Forces Medical Examiner System Department of Defense DNA Operations evidence custodian, accessions a sample at Dover Air Force Base, August 17, 2020. The process of accessing the samples allows evidence custodians to take accountability of samples where it can be processed and build a case file before samples can have DNA extracted. (Photo by Tech Sgt. Nicole Leidholm, AFMES)

Splitting work between a federal entity and the Air National Guard can pose a challenge, let alone having the two work environments more than 600 miles away from each other.

For Maryland native Rachel Johnson, she is both an evidence custodian for the Department of Defense (DOD) DNA Operations at the Armed Forces Medical Examiner System located at Dover Air Force Base, Delaware; and a master sergeant in the Air National Guard serving as a unit training manager with the 101st Air Refueling Wing in Maine.

“As an evidence custodian, we need to take accountability of samples so they can be processed and maintain continuity,” said Johnson. “Without accessioning, the samples would sit stagnant or they would be processed but have a higher probability of being misplaced due to not having a chain of custody.”

The samples that Johnson receives are to identify missing service members through the use of DNA analysis.

“It is important to accession these packages as soon as possible so we can get the DNA process started,” said Johnson. “That way, they can be utilized to help identify service members and this allows the families to have peace of mind knowing that their loved one has been found and can be laid to rest.”

Johnson was recently selected to become a security forces officer with her unit and is headed to Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama, for the next two months for Officer Training School.

“I am looking forward to becoming an officer, to be able to be that voice for both our enlisted and officers in the Guard,” she said. “Officers have a great responsibility to take care of the enlisted force and my prior enlisted experience will help make me a better leader.”

Prior to her selection as an Air Force officer, Johnson started her time in the military on active duty in health administration for five years before transitioning to the Reserves as an ophthalmology technician for eight years and finally with the 101st ARW for the last three years.

“When I was active duty, it was hard with my husband constantly traveling and moving and I wanted to be able to go where he goes,” said Johnson. “A big benefit of being Guard, is that it has allowed me to follow my husband and have the flexibility to get my Master’s Degree.”

Johnson was able to complete her Master’s Degree in Forensic Anthropology from the University of Central Lancashire, Preston, United Kingdom; and also has earned her Master’s Degree in Business Administration with a focus in healthcare from Husson University, Maine.

Splitting time between AFMES and the 101st ARW, that are many miles apart, can be tricky.

“The hardest challenge is being called to duty, such as for deployment, AGR orders or mandated training,” said Johnson. “Luckily, I have had civilian jobs that understand that this can happen and are very supportive.”

However, due to the recent COVID-19 restrictions, Johnson has not been back to Maine and has focused on her job at AFMES.

“Rachel has been here since January and doing case work since March,” said Ursula Zipperer, AFMES DOD DNA casework administration and evidence manager. “She does a fantastic job of getting her work done for AFMES and balancing both jobs.”

Zipperer added how Johnson has been a great addition to the team, despite the short time she’s been with AFMES.

“I think it’s great that she’s serving her country in multiple ways, working at AFMES bringing home lost service members, as well as being an active participant in our military,” said Zipperer. “She’s a wonderful person and employee and we’ll miss her while she’s away at training.”

Following OTS, Johnson is expected to return to AFMES.

“I am going to miss the environment and the people I worked with,” said Johnson. “I have enjoyed building relationships with those in my section and I am looking forward to coming back to get more training. This will allow me to be resourceful to my coworkers.”

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Jan 27, 2023

Armed Forces Medical Examiner Booklet

.PDF | 28.02 MB

The AFMES is the only medical examiner system authorized to support DOD and other federal agencies' missions. It also works closely with the investigative arms of all military branches, to conduct forensic investigations of crime scenes upon request. Download this booklet to learn more about the AFMES and its mission.

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Last Updated: July 11, 2023
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