USA — Accounting for POWs, MIAs a Year-round DOD Mission

WASHINGTON, Sept. 15, 2011 — As Amer­i­cans pause tomor­row to observe POW/MIA Recog­ni­tion Day, teams of mil­i­tary and civil­ian experts will be exca­vat­ing sites in Europe and the South Pacif­ic look­ing for remains to help iden­ti­fy ser­vice mem­bers still miss­ing from past wars.

Teams from Joint POW/MIA Account­ing Com­mand, based at Joint Base Pearl Har­bor-Hick­am in Hawaii, will be on the job, work­ing to pro­vide the fullest pos­si­ble account­ing of America’s miss­ing, and liv­ing up to their command’s mot­to, “Until they are home.”

Addi­tion­al teams are prepar­ing for sim­i­lar mis­sions over the next cou­ple of months to South Korea, Laos, Chi­na, Viet­nam and Ger­many, said Army Maj. Ramon Oso­rio, a JPAC spokesman.

POW/MIA Recog­ni­tion Day hon­ors the sac­ri­fices America’s miss­ing ser­vice mem­bers and their fam­i­lies have made for their coun­try, Oso­rio said.

But as Pres­i­dent Barack Oba­ma empha­sized today in his POW/MIA Recog­ni­tion Day procla­ma­tion, it also pro­vides an impor­tant reminder that the Unit­ed States is com­mit­ted to bring­ing its fall­en ser­vice mem­bers home to their fam­i­lies � and that it won’t give up, no mat­ter how long it takes, or how dif­fi­cult it might be.

“We will nev­er give up the search for those who are held as pris­on­ers of war or have gone miss­ing under our country’s flag,” he said. “We hon­or their sac­ri­fice, and we must care for their fam­i­lies and pur­sue the fullest pos­si­ble account­ing for all miss­ing mem­bers of our armed forces.

“Togeth­er, we must serve our nation’s patri­ots as well as they have served us � by sup­port­ing them when they come home, and by car­ry­ing on the lega­cy of those who do not,” he con­tin­ued. “This is a promise we keep for our fall­en, for our vet­er­ans past and present, and for all those whose loved ones have not returned from the bat­tle­field.”

JPAC’s mis­sion is to pro­vide the fullest pos­si­ble account­ing for about 84,000 U.S. ser­vice­mem­bers from the nation’s wars. The vast major­i­ty of these � 74,184 � are from World War II, but the lost also include 1,680 from Viet­nam, 7,979 from Korea, and 127 from the Cold War.

In addi­tion, two U.S. sol­diers from the cur­rent oper­a­tions are clas­si­fied as “Miss­ing-Cap­tured.” Army Spec. Ahmed Altaie, an Army Reserve sol­dier assigned to Provin­cial Recon­struc­tion Team Bagh­dad, alleged­ly was kid­napped in Octo­ber 2006 while on his way to vis­it his fam­i­ly in Bagh­dad. The Pen­ta­gon changed his sta­tus from “Duty Sta­tus Where­abouts Unknown” to “Miss­ing-Cap­tured” in Decem­ber 2006.

Army Pfc. Bowe Bergdahl, a mem­ber of the 25th Infantry Division’s 4th Brigade Com­bat Team, was cap­tured in Afghanistan’s Pak­ti­ka province on June 30, 2009. His sta­tus was changed to “Miss­ing-Cap­tured” on July 3, 2009 after the Tal­iban released video of him that was lat­er authen­ti­cat­ed by U.S. offi­cials.

Because they are asso­ci­at­ed with ongo­ing oper­a­tions, U.S. Cen­tral Com­mand has lead respon­si­bil­i­ty for these efforts, Osario said.

But for all oth­er cas­es, JPAC is com­mit­ted to the fullest pos­si­ble account­ing of every miss­ing U.S. mil­i­tary mem­ber. “That’s what we would love to do, and to be able to tell every fam­i­ly mem­ber that we are going to find every last per­son,” Osario said.

But it’s an admit­ted­ly daunt­ing task, par­tic­u­lar­ly in light of the many World War II MIAs who served aboard air­craft lost at sea. “The num­ber is stag­ger­ing,’ Osario said.

Despite the chal­lenges, JPAC has had a sol­id track record of suc­cess. Since 2003, its 400 mil­i­tary and civil­ian spe­cial­ists have iden­ti­fied more than 750 miss­ing Amer­i­cans. Com­bined with efforts of its pre­de­ces­sor units dat­ing back to the 1970s, it has iden­ti­fied close to 2,000 ser­vice mem­bers, Osario report­ed.

Ear­li­er this month, on Sept. 1, the Defense Depart­ment announced that the remains of one more, Air Force Maj. Thomas E. Reit­mann who was shot down over North Viet­nam in 1965, had been iden­ti­fied and returned to his fam­i­ly for bur­ial with full mil­i­tary hon­ors in Arling­ton Nation­al Ceme­tery.

JPAC is work­ing to build on those suc­cess­es, send­ing teams that include foren­sic anthro­pol­o­gists, foren­sic arche­ol­o­gists and sci­en­tif­ic direc­tors to poten­tial crash and bur­ial sites around the world. Teams returned dur­ing the past week from Papua New Guinea, Viet­nam, Europe and, pos­si­bly to some people’s sur­prise, to Cana­da, where an under­wa­ter recov­ery team inves­ti­gat­ed a World War II air­craft down­ing just off the coast.

Two addi­tion­al mis­sions are under way at World War II sites: one west of Frank­furt, Ger­many, and anoth­er in Van­u­atu in the South Pacif­ic.

Once remains or oth­er per­son­al arti­facts such as dog­tags are repa­tri­at­ed to JPAC’s head­quar­ters in Hawaii, experts at the command’s Cen­tral Iden­ti­fi­ca­tion Lab­o­ra­to­ry � the world’s largest foren­sic anthro­pol­o­gy lab � use the most advanced sci­ence avail­able to match them to a spe­cif­ic miss­ing ser­vice mem­ber. Among tools used is mito­chon­dr­i­al DNA, which includes unique sig­na­tures from the mater­nal line and helps the JPAC staff make iden­ti­fi­ca­tions once not con­sid­ered pos­si­ble.

But JPAC doesn’t work alone in ful­fill­ing its mis­sion. It works “all the time, every day” with the Armed Forces DNA iden­ti­fi­ca­tion Lab­o­ra­to­ry in Rockville, Md., which runs DNA sequences for JPAC and pro­vides a sys­tem of dou­ble-checks for find­ings, Osario said.

In addi­tion, the Defense Pris­on­er of War/Missing Per­son­nel Office in Wash­ing­ton pro­vides pol­i­cy guid­ance and over­sight for its mis­sions. And each ser­vice has an office that works direct­ly with fam­i­lies of the miss­ing through­out the account­ing process.

As JPAC paus­es tomor­row to host a POW/MIA Recog­ni­tion Day cer­e­mo­ny at the Nation­al Memo­r­i­al Ceme­tery of the Pacif­ic, known as the “Punch­bowl,” and oth­er mil­i­tary bases around the world com­mem­o­rate the day, Osario empha­sized that account­ing for America’s MIAs is 365-day-a-year mis­sion.

“The rea­son we con­tin­ue to do this is because it is the right thing to do,” he said. “Peo­ple under­stand the impor­tance of not for­get­ting the sac­ri­fices that those who have gone before us have made .…

“For those who decid­ed to raise their right hand and go forth to do that, we owe it to them and we def­i­nite­ly owe it to their fam­i­lies so they know we are going to give our 200 per­cent to do what’s right and work as hard as we can to find as many of them as we pos­si­bly can.”

This, he said, sends a pow­er­ful mes­sage to those serv­ing in today’s con­flicts.

“If we are going to ask you to go off and put your­self in harm’s way and poten­tial­ly pay the ulti­mate price, if tragedy were to strike, know­ing that your coun­try has your back and will do every­thing it pos­si­bly can do to ensure you end up with your fam­i­ly,” he said. “That is huge. It clear­ly shows the men and women who are serv­ing today at Amer­i­ca stands behind them, regard­less of what may occur.”

U.S. Depart­ment of Defense
Office of the Assis­tant Sec­re­tary of Defense (Pub­lic Affairs)