Friday, February 17, 2012
Genealogy Detective Megan Smolenyak
If that doesn’t jog your memory, try these nostalgic news clips: President Obama and Sarah Palin are related. President Obama has Irish ancestry. Strom Thurmond and Al Sharpton’s families have a common past. The person who established these relationships that made the headlines? Megan Smolenyak. While such genealogical confirmations may elicit a public chuckle, or raise an eyebrow, they don’t begin to scratch the surface of the truly remarkable work this lady performs.
Our nation’s military serves, protects, and sometimes dies for us. In fact, currently there are 75,000 Americans still unaccounted for from WWII, 8,000 from Korea, and 1700 from Vietnam. Yes, there are more from WWI, the Cold War, and other combat arenas. These men and women who made the ultimate sacrifice deserve to go home.
As one of the first to utilize DNA as a means to explore heritage, Megan’s work was quickly recognized by the Unites States military, and for the past decade Megan has worked furiously and relentlessly to reunite previously unknown heroes with their families. This work has become so much a part of her that she even stood alone at the burial of the remains of a soldier she identified when no living family members had yet been located. Such is the heart of Megan Smolenyak.
Previously, Megan co-authored “Trace Your Roots with DNA,” the best-selling, how-to book on genetic genealogy. Her other books include “Honoring Our Ancestors,” “In Search of Our Ancestors,” and “They Came to America.” Now she has written “Hey, America, Your Roots Are Showing.” This book affords the reader a ringside seat as Megan recalls a number of career highlights including tracking First Lady Michelle Obama’s heritage, the Obama-Palin link, and locating the families of our fallen soldiers as far back as the Civil War. There are a few how-to tips for those who would like to perform their own family investigations. But most importantly, this book more than any other allows us to travel Megan’s journey with her and learn just how devoted she is to her work and how extremely consuming, heart wrenching, and joyous genealogy investigation can be.
A) I started genealogy in the 6th grade and it’s always been my first love, but back when I finished school, it seemed a fantasy to make a living as a genealogist, so I became a consultant. I enjoyed it and had the opportunity to see the world, but I reached a point where I was averaging nine months a year overseas and living the rest of life in little gasps in between suitcases. That’s when I decided to make a change and give genealogy a go as a profession – and I’ve been beyond fortunate. It still amazes me how many wonderful opportunities have come my way.
Q) As a veteran, I’m humbled and grateful for your work. As a former police detective, I understand how difficult your job can be. How did you feel the first time you actually reunited a fallen soldier with his family? I would suspect there was as much relief as joy.
A) First, please allow me to thank you for your service in both capacities. I happen to be an Army “brat,” so this work is incredibly meaningful to me. I’m just a small part of the process, but am fortunate enough to be the family’s first point of contact, a responsibility I don’t take lightly. Having located thousands of family members over the years, I’ve done it many times now, but it’s still a fresh experience each time. And I suppose the “first” that stands out the most for me is the first funeral I attended at Arlington National Cemetery. To see the actual outcome of the efforts of the Army and JPAC was unforgettable. I love that our country stands by its “no man left behind” commitment.
Q) Obviously, your work requires long hours and a lot of travel. How do you and your husband stay connected?
A) My husband is perhaps the most patient and flexible man on the planet. When possible, he tries to travel with me, but otherwise, we keep in touch by phone. And now with FaceTime on our iPads, we can see each other!
Q) Not every case is solvable, and there is always one that stays with us, the one we can’t forget or let go of. Which unsolved case is your constant companion?
A) Unfortunately, I’m not at liberty to be very specific, but there was a case involving a soldier who lost his life in Vietnam that tormented me for quite a while. He was born overseas to foreign parents, and his mother brought him to America, where she cycled through a number of locations and marriages. After he died, she returned to her home country. In the course of my research, I also discovered a previously unknown child of the soldier’s. I came up short the first time, but for whatever reasons, the case was given back to me, and I was able to resolve it. Perhaps because my father served in Vietnam, that one really had a hold of me until I got that second chance.
A) Back when I was in a youngster in school, we were instructed to go home one day and ask our parents where our surnames were from. When we went back the next day, we had to put our names on slips of paper in our countries of origin, and I – slightly misinformed, as I would later learn – had the whole of the then-Soviet Union to myself. Having grown up in a military family and in several countries, I had spent my life in a multi-cultural environment and didn’t realize until that moment what I strange name I had. That’s what sparked my curiosity and once I took my first steps, it became my own personal history mystery, so I quickly became addicted to the thrill of the hunt!
Q) Any parting comments for your readers?
A) Talk to your elders – and I mean soon. I’ve written whole books on how to research your roots, so could bombard you with tactics, websites and resources, but the one regret I hear over and over again is some version of, “I wish I had asked him when he was still alive.” Older relatives are living libraries and have so much to share. The databases and records will be there waiting for you. Talk to Grandma first! You’ll be glad you did.
DA Kentner is an author and journalist. www.kevad.net