WASHINGTON — Defense Department officials testified Tuesday that the new agency to replace the troubled POW/MIA accounting community in charge of recovering and repatriating the remains of troops killed in past conflicts will be stood up on Jan. 1.
The agency will consolidate the work of the Defense Prisoner of War/Missing Personnel Office and the Joint Personnel Accounting Command as ordered by the secretary of defense in February, said Michael Lumpkin, the assistant secretary of defense for special operations and low-intensity conflict.
Lumpkin testified before the House Armed Services’ military personnel subcommittee, which for years has pressed for reform and in 2009 helped pass a congressional mandate that the DOD recover at minimum of 200 remains annually beginning next year.
On Tuesday, Rep. Joe Wilson, R-S.C., chairman of the House subcommittee, said he was pleased that the DOD is moving ahead with the changes.
“What a positive report — that is very unusual in Congress,” he said.
The DOD efforts to recover 83,000 Americans still missing from past conflicts have so far fallen far below the goal set by Congress and been dogged by incompetence and dysfunction, including claims agencies ignored leads, arguing against identifying remains in government custody, desecrated and mishandled of remains, and failed to keep critical records.
An interim inspector general report, obtained last week by ProPublica, outlined some of the problems:
- a remarkably low number of identifications each year — just 60 in 2013
- no standard operating procedures, or central database of the missing
- leadership and management problems resulting in a hostile and dysfunctional work environment
- no acknowledgment that as many as 50,000 missing at sea are unlikely to be recovered
- Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel ordered the overhaul and consolidation in February and called maximizing the number of identifications a top priority for the DOD.
Lumpkin said the new central agency will open at the start of 2015 but will not be fully operational until January 2016.
“Throughout this process, operations to account for the missing and to keep their families informed will continue,” he said.
Jamie Morin, director of DOD Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation, said JPAC and DPMO as well as the Life Sciences Equipment Laboratory, which handles forensic work, will continue on recovery efforts until the new agency is completely operational in 2016.
“We are building something up while we are shrinking something down to ensure that this is seamless,” Morin said.
Plans for the new agency call for:
- Oversight by a newly created DOD policy under secretary who’s central task will be the recovery effort
- A medical examiner in charge of all identification and scientific operations
- Centralized data base and case management system containing all POW/MIA case information
Lumpkin said the department will also try to improve the way it treats the families of those still missing in action.
“From a business perspective, who is the customer here? We haven’t focused on the families as much as we could,” he said. “I think that is the underlying piece we all agreed upon.”