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Internal memo alleges JPAC ethics violations, mishandling of military remains

A Marine from the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command looks through a strainer to see if he can find remains of a servicemember from World War II believed to have been buried next to a British memorial in the village of Betio on the island of Tarawa, Republic of Kiribati, on Aug 9, 2010.

SASEBO NAVAL BASE, Japan — Internal communications obtained by Stars and Stripes allege a troubling pattern of wrongdoing and violation of scientific ethics by JPAC’s Central Identification Laboratory, the section responsible for the lion’s share of efforts to search, recover and identify American personnel missing from past military conflicts.

The documents contain allegations of botched recovery and identification efforts that span modern American military history, including World War II dead on Tarawa Atoll; Korean War dead at Upo Lake, South Korea; and Vietnam-era war dead on Koh Tang island in Cambodia.

The offenses allegedly committed by laboratory personnel include possible desecration and mishandling of remains, failure to keep critical records, excavation of incorrect sites and waste of taxpayer funds on duplicate efforts caused by shoddy performance.

“These charges echo concerns that have been raised before about JPAC’s performance, and there needs to be a full investigation,” said U.S. Sen. Kelly Ayotte, a Republican from New Hampshire, after viewing a portion of the documents Jan. 23.

The allegations are the latest stain on the reputation of the Defense Department’s Joint Prisoners of War, Missing in Action Accounting Command, which has been described as “lacking in structure, leadership and accountability” in Congressional hearings. It comes on the heels of a recent scandal involving JPAC and the Defense POW/Missing Personnel Office, with revelations that JPAC held phony repatriation ceremonies with alleged remains, and multiple reports about agency deficiencies and impropriety.

Stars and Stripes has previously reported charges that JPAC and DPMO officials ignored leads on MIAs in Southeast Asia, prematurely declared Southeast Asia MIAs deceased and unrecoverable, and actively argued against identifying unknown World War II remains in government custody when evidence suggested they could be identified.

In 2010, Congress mandated that the agency increase its annual recovery number from 70 to more than 200 by 2015, but the numbers have changed little, or in some years, actually fallen. JPAC’s operating budget has doubled since fiscal 2006 to more than $100 million in fiscal 2012.

JPAC officials declined to comment last week, citing an “ongoing investigation.” 

Waste, incomplete records

In a memorandum to the then-commander of JPAC dated May 17, 2011, a JPAC forensic anthropologist outlines serious deficiencies at the Central Identification Laboratory.


From the memo

 


Jay Silverstein wrote the memo to Army Maj. Gen. Stephen Tom, who served as JPAC commander until October 2012. Stars and Stripes obtained the memo from a source, and its authenticity was confirmed by several former and current JPAC employees who requested anonymity, citing fear of reprisal. Silverstein, they said, had been treated harshly for sending the memo.

JPAC officials declined to make Silverstein available for an official interview, and he declined to comment.

In the document, Silverstein stated that he personally worked cases in Tarawa, Upo Lake and Koh Tang, and had an intimate knowledge with aspects of all three. Silverstein wrote that the Central Identification Laboratory made unsubstantiated determinations about sites because scientific data contradicted their recommendations and conclusions; repeatedly wasted a “considerable” amount of taxpayer funds on missions because of shoddy work; and was unable to track JPAC activities and elaborate on recovery efforts due to improper record keeping.


 


He also accused the Identification Laboratory of breaking JPAC policy and instruction, abusing the U.S. Government Merit System to control employees and shield the laboratory’s archaeological work from outside review, and putting the agency in “awkward” situations where they are unable to provide “fullest and most complete and scientifically valid findings and accounting from our field investigations” to families, non-government groups and even members of Congress.

“In some cases, we are unable to answer fundamental questions like, ‘How do we know there are no Americans in that grave?’ or ‘Could those remains uncovered been American?’,” Silverstein wrote in the memo.

Johnie Webb, JPAC’s deputy to the commander for external relations and legislative affairs; Dr. Thomas Holland, director and deputy to the command for Central Identification Laboratory operations; and JPAC commander Air Force Maj. Gen. Kelly McKeague declined interview requests last week through JPAC spokesman Army Maj. Jamie Dobson.

A violation of ethics

Today, 513 American servicemembers remain unaccounted for from the Battle of Tarawa, where 1,143 Americans — including 978 members of the 2nd Marine Division — were killed while assaulting fortified Japanese positions in November 1943. The majority of those unaccounted for are believed to be buried in mass graves on the atoll, according to Rick Stone, former deputy chief of JPAC’s World War II Research and Investigation Branch.

Silverstein asserted in the memo that during excavations on Tarawa Atoll in 2010,  the Identification Laboratory employed “poor methods” and failed to “conduct proper scientific work on numerous levels,” which led to extremely suspect conclusions.

He stated that after a geophysical survey using ground penetrating radar was approved — the best practice for locating the graves — CIL staffers canceled it.  Silverstein claimed staff members also used improper excavation techniques that increased the chances of missing buried remains; conducted a leading interview with a witness; discounted remains as Japanese just by looking at photographs; and later withheld reports and information from other JPAC sections conducting analysis.

Charges detailed in the Silverstein memorandum also involve mishandling of remains.

While on Tarawa, CIL staffers accepted two sets of remains into their custody. According to Silverstein, they did not write the required reports documenting where the remains came from, the circumstances of recovery, witness interviews and inventories. This information would have helped investigators draft a short list of potential candidates for possible DNA testing and identification.

“Apparently no such documentation was made,” Silverstein wrote.

Stone was assigned the task of drafting a short list for each set of remains. He told Stars and Stripes that the Identification Laboratory repeatedly declined requests for information and reports that might help him narrow down the identities.

“I thought this was resolved,” Holland, the CIL director, wrote an email to Stone’s supervisors in March 2012. “We aren’t turning over field notes or anthropological profiles. The J2 short list should be based on independent historical data, not the lab’s work products. You can’t mix the lines of evidence.”

Stone sent memos to his supervisors at the Directorate for Intelligence, J-2.

“In the final analysis, it is obvious that the short lists provided in this report have little or no value to assist in the identification of [Case] 2010-150 based on the failure of the CIL to provide absolutely any information necessary to produce a viable short list of most likely matches,” Stone wrote in the memo, which he made available to Stars and Stripes. “This assignment by the CIL is analogous to investigating an X-file case for an “Unknown” and finding all the pages in the case file to be blank, or for the CIL to receive a box of remains without being given any additional information and being asked to produce a short list of possible identities.”

Stone resigned in August 2012.

Silverstein also alleged in the memo that skeletal elements taken as samples on Tarawa compromised the chain of custody and jeopardized the status and fate of the rest of the remains. Silverstein claimed that the excavation reports did not include information on the individual the remains were taken from, nor did they include a provision for replacing the sample.

“Sample skeletal elements removed from an articulated burial context is a questionable moral and ethical practice,” he wrote. “Disassociation of remains may be considered a desecration and disrespect of the buried subjects and should certainly be reviewed by the American Anthropological Association and/or Register of Professional Archaeologists for violation of ethical standards regarding the treatment of human remains.”

Wire handcuffs

At least three U.S. Marines were left behind on Koh Tang after a battle in May 1975 and were later killed by the Khmer Rouge.

Pfc. Gary Hall, Lance Cpl. Joseph Hargrove and Pvt. Danny Marshall were among the Marines from 2nd Battalion, 9th Marines dispatched to the fortified Khmer Rouge island stronghold to free the crew of the American merchant ship SS Mayaguez, which had been seized by communist forces. A 14-hour battle ensued, involving more than 200 Marines, airmen and Navy corpsman. Fifteen were killed in the fighting, and their bodies were left on and around the remote island in the Gulf of Thailand.

In the confusion of forces leaving Koh Tang, Hall, Hargrove and Marshall were left behind. Witnesses have said that requests to go back for the men were denied.

Since 1991, JPAC has conducted about 10 excavations and 20 investigations looking for the missing from the battle. They have repatriated numerous sets of remains. However,  JPAC says that Hargrove, Hall, Marshall, Lance Cpl. Ashton Loney and Air Force Staff Sgt. Elwood Rumbaugh (who was lost at sea) remain unaccounted for.

Silverstein’s memorandum once again centers on the CIL’s failure to fully record its work, “some of which may cover the only evidence thus far related to the possible fate of one of those that was left behind.”

Some of the best leads JPAC has had for those left behind were uncovered in 1999, according to Silverstein’s memo. Two sites were excavated that year.

Only one detailed report of excavation, which includes only preliminary information, was completed for two cases. Only one search-and-recovery report — the more detailed technical scientific report outlining the methods, data recorded and scientific findings — was completed.

There is no search-and-recovery report detailing the excavation of a site that matched a witness’ recollections and was possibly related to a missing Marine. According to Silverstein's memo, the preliminary report said:

“THE ANTHROPOLOGIST OBSERVED A SINGLE PIT FEATURE IN THE EXCAVATION FLOOR WHICH CORRESPONDS NEARLY EXACTLY IN TERMS OF SIZE, SHAPE, AND ORIENTATION TO THE WITNESS DESCRIPTION OF THE BURIAL PIT DUG IN 1975. THE TEAM RECOVERED ONE POSSIBLE SET OF WIRE HANDCUFFS THAT COULD POSSIBLY RELATE TO CASE 1998.”

Silverstein said in the memo that the lack of a report was a clear violation of JPAC procedure.

“It also makes it difficult to systematically track our efforts and locations where we have worked,” Silverstein wrote. “This leaves a serious void in our record on this case and makes it impossible to answer questions with any authority or scientific validity.”

Some family members of the missing and Marines who survived the battle were shown the document last week by Stars and Stripes. 

“It confirms what I’ve been thinking all along and what my witnesses have been saying, that there has been a cover-up with leaving the three behind,” said Hargrove’s cousin Cary Turner. Turner has been to Koh Tang investigating his cousin’s death and has been one of the government’s harshest critics in the case.

“This travesty is simply a disservice to those family members who want those remains brought home,” said retired Marine and Koh Tang battle survivor Larry Barnett, who founded the Koh Tang/Mayaguez Veterans Organization. “These are real people and they deserve real answers. ... We need to get JPAC cleaned up.”

'Take action now'

In the summer of 2008, Silverstein was assigned to lead efforts begun a year earlier at Upo Lake, South Korea, according to the document. He alleged that after the 2007 mission, the lab again failed to complete the required search and recovery report as well as the excavation summary report.

Silverstein wrote in the memo that all he had to go on when he went to South Korea was the verbal description from the previous team leader, who told him to “dig deeper [in the same spot] and to shore up the walls with braces because of the presence of unstable fill.” Due to this recommendation, special equipment was rented and transported to South Korea at considerable cost.

Silverstein described beginning to re-excavate the trench, but soon realizing due to the soil and topography that the 2007 mission had been digging in the wrong place. This was confirmed by discussions with locals and a visit to town government offices, he wrote.

“Had there been an interim report that was peer-reviewed by a competent archaeologist, the presence of modern fill and the aspect of the site on the slope in conjunction with the witness statement would have made it apparent that the excavation was situated in the wrong location,” Silverstein stated in the memo.

After reviewing the document last week, Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., a member of the Senate oversight committee, called for immediate action.

“The Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command is permeated by in-fighting, retaliation, and childish behavior, to the point that I have serious doubts as to how any work gets done,” she said. “The command’s management and Defense Department leadership have failed to adequately address these problems, and that failure dishonors the mission, and dishonors those who have served our country. The Pentagon needs to take action now, and I will be pursuing all necessary reforms to ensure that our sacred obligation to our POW/MIA is honored.”

burke.matt@stripes.com


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