WASHINGTON — In the wake of numerous reports of misconduct and poor management practices by personnel charged with recovering and identifying the remains of missing servicemembers from past conflicts, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel has ordered the Pentagon to come up with a plan to consolidate all Defense Department assets into a single, more accountable entity that will manage all personnel accounting resources, research and operations.
On Thursday, Hagel directed Michael Lumpkin, the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy, to deliver the plan to him within 30 days, Pentagon Press Secretary Rear Adm. John Kirby told reporters.
In a memo obtained by Stars and Stripes, Hagel said Lumpkin’s action plan should propose ways to:
- Maximize the number of identifications.
- Improve transparency for families.
- Reduce duplicative functions.
- Establish a system for centralized, complete, fully accessible personnel case files for missing personnel.
In the memo, Hagel suggested he is considering making wide-ranging changes in areas such as:
- Civilian and military personnel policies.
- Contracting and acquisition policies.
- Statutory and regulatory authorities.
- Oversight of laboratory operations.
“This is a top priority for the Department,” Hagel said.
The initiative follows embarrassing revelations and unflattering reports about Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command and the Defense POW/Missing Personnel Office, the two agencies with primary responsibility for recovery and identification efforts.
In July, the Associated Press reported that a JPAC internal study of its operations concluded that DOD’s effort to account for the tens of thousands of Americans missing in action were so incompetent and mismanaged that it risks descending from “dysfunction to total failure.”
In October, the Pentagon acknowledged that JPAC had been holding phony remains arrival ceremonies for seven years.
In December, Stars and Stripes reported charges that JPAC and DPMO officials ignored leads, prematurely declared MIAs deceased and unrecoverable and argued against identifying unknown remains in government custody when evidence suggested they could be identified.
In January, Stars and Stripes obtained internal communications from JPAC documenting allegations that JPAC’s Central Identification Laboratory personnel were involved in the desecration and mishandling of remains, failure to keep critical records, excavation of incorrect sites, and waste of taxpayer funds on duplicate efforts.
A Government Accountability Office audit released in July cited leadership failures and bureaucratic infighting as problems plaguing Pentagon recovery and identification efforts.
Kirby said the JPAC report and other reviews led Hagel to issue his directive.
“The reviews that we've seen of this mission tell us lots of things. One of them is, it's not being done as efficiently as possible from an organizational perspective,” he told reporters.
Hagel served in combat as an Army infantry squad leader during the Vietnam War. More than 1,600 Americans involved in that conflict remain unaccounted, according to DPMO.
“As a veteran himself, the secretary has an especially personal commitment to ensuring we account for and bring home as many of our missing and fallen service personnel as possible,” Kirby said.