WASHINGTON – Time is the enemy for those identifying remains of missing service members.
Long after the last shots were fired,almost 88,000 soldiers are still missing from World War II,Korea,Vietnam and the Cold War. No one knows how many are unaccounted for from World War I.
Many bone fragments are in storage,waiting to be identified. Others have not been recovered.
As more time passes,it is less likely the missing will be identified,said Johnie Webb,deputy to the public relations commander for the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command. Bones and evidence deteriorate,and family members die before their DNA can be compared to the bone fragments,he said.
“Every day that passes,we're losing information that could help find these men,” Webb said.
Five agencies under the Defense Department's POW/MIA office search for evidence or DNA samples that could help them identify recovered remains. They plan recovery missions and find new ways to use DNA,but time and budget constraints limit their work.
The most service members still missing are from World War II – about 78,000. About 400 have been identified since 1976.
Sometimes,the recovery teams cannot get to the remains,Webb said. Out of the 8,100 service members still missing from the Korean War,5,000 are believed to have died in North Korea,but U.S. researchers have not searched for remains since 2005 because of tension between the two countries.
Earlier trips there plus discoveries in South Korea identified 200 remains.
The Defense Department has more precise statistics for later wars. From the Vietnam War,896 remains have been identified leaving 1,750 missing,and 19 have been identified from the Cold War,leaving 125 missing.
Navy fighter pilot Capt. Scott Speicher,a fighter pilot shot down over the Iraqi desert in 1991,is the only missing service member from the Persian Gulf War. In the ongoing Iraq war,the only MIA is Army Spec. Ahmed Kousay al-Taie,who disappeared in Baghdad in October 2006. In Afghanistan,no U.S. troops are unaccounted for.
The number of yearly identifications has ranged from 75 to 100 for the past five or six years,said Larry Greer,Defense POW/ Missing Personnel Office spokesman,but they have received more media attention as more families allow the information to be released to the public.
He said the department lets families decide if officials can issue press releases. As more families agree,he said the positive media attention makes other families willing to do the same.
Joseph Benkert,assistant secretary of defense for global security affairs,said the U.S. military places more emphasis on finding missing,captured and killed service members than any other country.
At an October conference to update families about the recovery efforts,he told them the labs and the recovery teams exist for them so their loved one can be found.
“This isn't an issue,” he said. “It's about people.”
The demand for answers has grown,but the $17 million budget has not increased very much,Benkert said. The department has funding for 2009,but he said the future is uncertain for 2010 and beyond.
Benkert said in October that he did not know if the new administration would give the issue a high priority,but said he thinks both parties understand its importance.
“Any increase in funding for our division likely would have to come from a cut on another project,” he said.
More funding and new technology could give the researchers new opportunities to find previously unknown facts,Benkert said. Using details like cockpit sizes to identify crashed planes and pieces of uniforms and personal items found with bones to determine identity is relatively inexpensive compared to travel and high-tech methods to analyze DNA.
Daniel Baughman,chief of the DPMO Northeast Asia division,said researchers also use military archives and oral accounts from witnesses and veterans. He said they use the information to determine where they could find remains and use their resources most efficiently.
“What we want to tell you is that we are going to keep looking for these guys and they are not forgotten,” Baughman said.
To find out more,contact:
For information about the recovery process or about events for families of missing service members:
For information about family reference DNA samples or to find out if you are a potential donor:
Hickam Air Force Base
1 (866) 913-1286
Service Casualty Offices:
1 (800) 531-5501
Department of the Army
1 (800) 892-2490
Headquarters U. S. Marine Corps
Personal and Family Readiness Division
1 (800) 847-1597
Or the DPMO Web site
Navy Personnel Command
1 (800) 443-9298