Two separate reviews have found the Defense Department’s operation for locating prisoners of war and service members missing in action to be disorganized and “dysfunctional” despite a 2009 directive from Congress to meet annual identification and recovery targets by 2015.
The Pentagon reports more than 83,000 U.S. personnel still missing from World War II, Korea, Vietnam, the Cold War and the Persian Gulf. In 2009, Congress required the DoD to structure resources as necessary to account for 200 missing persons a year by the target date. That legislation also added location of WWII fighters, which account for about 10,000 of the total missing personnel, to the DoD’s responsibility.
In a report released last week, the General Accounting Office found that the “mission is being undermined by longstanding leadership weaknesses and a fragmented organizational structure.”
“Leadership from the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy (USD Policy) and U.S. Pacific Command (PACOM) have not been able to resolve disagreements among accounting community members, thereby impacting DOD’s ability to meet the mandated goal of increasing its capability and capacity to account for 200 missing persons a year by 2015,” the GAO reported.
By the end of 2012, the accounting community had located and identified an average of 72 missing persons each year.
The GAO found that the DoD had not completed the comprehensive plan required by Congress in 2009, and had only established criteria to prioritize recovery efforts for those missing in Vietnam.
A survey of staff within the accounting community found frustration over a lack of centralized command, inefficient overlap, conflicts among members and poor organization.
The 87-page GAO report follows a scathing internal Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command report that painted the department as mismanaged, corrupt, using lackluster science, dragging its feet and heading from “dysfunction to total failure.”
“It’s appalling that the DOD’s JPAC has evolved into such a dysfunctional bureaucracy that family members of POW/MIA have to suffer the consequences of the DOD’s inadequacies,” Amber Barno of Concerned Veterans for America told PJM. “Leadership mismanagement and misguided priorities are deeply disappointing to those family members who are still waiting for their loved ones to return home.”
Adm. Samuel J. Locklear III, commander of the U.S. Pacific Command, told reporters at the Pentagon after details of the JPAC report came out that he didn’t agree with the characterization of the accounting community as dysfunctional.
“That command has a very important mission that is — has, I think, a sacred duty to do all we can to return the remains of our fallen to their loved ones. And — but it’s also a unique mission for the U.S. military. And it has a set number of experts that deal with this that are limited in number,” Locklear said.
“We have had a number of looks — internal looks at this organization over time, and, in particularly, after the Congress NDA 2010 required them to up the number of remains that were being recovered. And so, we’ve had ongoing looks at how that organization needs to be structured and how it can be most efficient,” he continued.
“So to characterize it as dysfunctional, I don’t necessarily agree with that. But I do think that there are areas where we need to take harder looks at how it is organized and how the mission steps are prioritized …I can tell you I think it’s one perspective, but we need to take a broader look.”
The chairman of the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Military Personnel said he thought Congress was “very clear” in its 2009 directive that a comprehensive path forward was imperative.
“We certainly last year realized that progress was not being made,” Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.) told PJM today, adding that he thought the time allowance originally granted by Congress to bring recovery efforts up to snuff was “reasonable.”
Wilson said he is bringing together the authors of each report to testify before his subcommittee on Aug. 1.
The Republican chairman and Ranking Member Susan Davis (D-Calif.) issued a joint statement in response to the GAO findings, saying “senior Defense Department officials have failed to both execute this directive and to prevent fragmentation of the accounting effort.”
“As a result, the nation is no closer today to achieving the minimal goal of accounting for just 200 missing persons annually than it was four years ago,” Wilson and Davis continued. “…The current Pentagon leadership has had ample time to get this moral imperative right. It is time for them to exercise firm, steady judgment and innovation to make the priority of accounting for 200 prisoners of war a year a reality.”
The administration issues an annual proclamation to mark National POW/MIA Recognition Day. “As long as members of our Armed Forces remain unaccounted for, America will bring our fullest resources to bear in finding them and bringing them home,” President Obama said in September 2012. “It is a promise we make not only to the families of our captured and our missing, but to all who have worn the uniform.”
In testimony last week before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey said he’d received a call from Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel saying that he’d like “to get to the bottom of it” when they have a chance to sit down together and review the report.
“It’s so new, but it’s so discouraging and moving rapidly toward disgraceful, so I assure you we will — we will get at it,” Dempsey said.
In his speech today before the Veterans of Foreign Wars convention in Louisville, Ky., Hagel, a Vietnam vet, made a single mention of the effort.
“Making the right decisions about our future depends on our appreciation of the sacrifices our people and their families make for our country,” Hagel said. “We must continue to pay close attention to their needs and our commitments to them — including everything from family support programs to the resolute and painstaking work of POW/MIA recovery efforts.”
Wilson told PJM that the families have been “very helpful” in keeping a focus on the issue. “That’s what’s prompted so much of the concern,” he said.
Last year, the chairman visited a mountainous crash site in Vietnam where a jet that had gone down with two pilots was recovered from decades of overgrowth.
“It was inspiring to see the joint U.S.-Vietnamese effort,” Wilson said, adding that the U.S. should employ to the full potential relations “with countries previously our enemies who now want to help us.”
Modern technology also needs to be taken advantage of in the hunt for American servicemen, he said, including DNA and GPS.
“There needs to be truly a focus on new technology we have now,” Wilson continued. “This should be done… It’s just a fact that we need to proceed. Sadly — I am realistic — I understand there are persons lost with no way for recovery, but if there’s any potential today whatever can be done should be done.”
He said time is also not on the side of some cases as investigators rush to find witnesses. “Think of recoveries in southeast Asia — there are people who still have memory of events,” he said. In the 60 years since Korea “that becomes problematic,” and is “extraordinarily difficult” with the WWII MIAs.
“We leave no one behind,” Wilson stressed. “Every effort should be made.”
“I think fiscal hawks would agree with that,” he added, counting himself among those ranks.
The day after the GAO report was released, the Defense Department announced the identification of two MIA soldiers.
Army Sgt. Bernard J. Fisher of Wilkes Barre, Pa., who was interred as an “unknown” in March 1995, was buried July 16 in Arlington National Cemetery. Scientists from JPAC were able to identify the remains of the soldier who went missing in a January 1951 attack northeast of Seoul.
Navy Hospital Corpsman 3rd Class Michael B. Judd of Cleveland, who was aboard a CH-46A helicopter that crashed on June 30, 1967, in Thua Thien-Hue Province, Vietnam, was buried on July 15 in Arlington National Cemetery. The crash site was discovered in 1999 and excavated in 2012.
“Implementing the GAO’s recommendations is a step in the right direction, but top-level leadership must take responsibility for nearly running the organization into ruin, not to mention disrespecting the POW/MIA family members by doing so,” said Barno, who served as an Army helicopter pilot in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“DOD leadership needs a refresher on the importance of the missing persons recovery mission and must begin operating the program as a professional and accountable organization that will bring our missing service members home.”