WASHINGTON – Failure to account for high numbers of missing service members from past wars has resulted in a new Defense Department agency.
The agency,part of a consolidation of the work done by the Defense of Prisoner of War/Missing Personnel Office and the Joint Personnel Accounting Command,will open at the beginning of 2015. It will be fully operational in 2016.
Accounting for missing personnel from past conflicts has been complicated because it has been done by five agencies within the Department of Defense. This as well as weak leadership was criticized in a 2013 report by the Government Accountability Office.
“The absence of a single,accountable individual has resulted in duplication of effort among organizations,which has driven inefficiencies and institutional conflict,” Jamie Morin,director of cost assessment and program evaluation for the Department of Defense,testified.
About 83,000 service members are unaccounted for,Michael Lumpkin,assistant secretary of defense for special operations and low-intensity conflict,testified. It is estimated that is realistic to recover 19,000 to 28,000 of those bodies.
“The department recognizes that we cannot recover remains in all cases,but we have a duty to provide designated family members the fullest possible accounting of their loved ones,” Lumpkin said. “Change,even for the better,can be difficult.”
Part of improving things will come from focusing on the families of missing people.
“We hadn’t been focused on the families as much as we could,” he said. “The deep concern for the families – I think that’s the underlying piece that everyone agreed upon.”
Congress mandated in 2009 that the Department of Defense recover a minimum of 200 remains annually beginning next year. The law also requires the department to account for World War II losses,which makes up more than 73,000 of the Americans missing. Five Americans are missing from the Iraq War and recent conflicts,according to the Defense Prisoner of War/Missing Personnel Office.
The department’s efforts to recover missing Americans have fallen below the mandate. It accounted for 60 people in 2013.
In some cases,tensions between the U.S. and countries such as North Korea have kept recovery teams from finding remains. More than 7,500 Americans are missing from the Korean War.
But the agencies have also been criticized with claims that they ignored leads,desecrated and mishandled remains and failed to keep critical records.
The GAO report found that disputes and lack of coordination among agencies kept them from reaching Congress’ goal.
The new defense agency will centralize recovery efforts. It will be responsible for all aspects of accounting for missing service members,including resource managements and policy for personnel recovery. Oversight will be done by a newly created Defense Department policy undersecretary whose central task will be recovery efforts. A medical examiner will also be in charge of all identification and scientific operations.
Rep. Joe Wilson,R-S.C.,chairman of the House subcommittee,said he was happy that the Department of Defense was moving forward with its charges.
“What a positive report – that is very unusual in Congress,” he said.
Reach reporter Erin Bell at [email protected] or 202-326-9866. SHFWire stories are free to any news organization that gives the reporter a byline and credits the SHFWire.