CHICAGO — A host of critics and a government report contend that the military is coming up short with one of its most sacred tasks: finding, identifying and returning the bodies of missing American soldiers.
No one disputes the difficulty of the job facing the Joint Prisoners of War, Missing in Action Accounting Command. Recovery work is like finding a needle in a haystack — except the haystack is a humid jungle and the needle is human remains buried beneath decades of soil or sand.
“We’re talking about individuals who were lost 50, 60, 70 years ago, and there was an attempt at that time to recover those individuals,” said Johnie Webb, JPAC’s deputy to the commander for external relations and legislative affairs.
“I think many people visualize you’re going out to a plane crash and you just simply go in and find the bodies and bring them back home. That’s not what we find. You can walk across that crash site and not know it. Almost all that aircraft has been salvaged, used for different things, sold for scrap metal.”
But critics — lots of them — argue the Department of Defense is making a hard job even more difficult. Agencies often spar over who should pursue a case or perform a task, the government report attests, or fail to prioritize the cases most likely to be solved.
More than 83,000 Americans are missing from World War II and more recent conflicts. More than 600 people work in the agencies tasked with finding them, according to a Defense Department spokeswoman.
Identifying the missing is a daunting task. Often, all researchers have to go on are incomplete records and the fading memory of, say, an elderly local woman trying to remember where a plane crashed 70 years earlier. Even critics of the accounting agencies note that rank-and-file workers are extremely dedicated to the cause.
Still, a Government Accountability Office report released in July details instances of recovery agencies engaging in bureaucratic scrums that often seemed to have more to do with congressional appropriations and prestige than finding the body of a Marine still mourned seven decades after he was killed. Legislators called agency leaders to testify on Capitol Hill about the report’s findings.
The report notes that JPAC and other accounting agencies have been slow to order exhumations of unknowns already buried on U.S. soil. Webb said JPAC alone doesn’t have the authority to disinter a body from a national cemetery, a decision that ultimately rests with one of the several organizations, including the Department of Veteran Affairs and the Department of the Army, that maintain the cemeteries.
“To do a disinterment (of) an unknown, we must be able to narrow the scope of possibilities of who that person could be,” Webb said. “We have to draft up the work and say ‘we think this unknown remains represents one of five or eight individuals.’ Then we have to submit that up through channels.”
The GAO report notes hopeful signs, and a Defense Department spokeswoman said officials at the Pentagon are looking at how to implement the recommendations and “improve our activities.”
“The JPAC motto is ‘Until they are home,’ and that’s … the pledge that we make to their families,” said Webb, the JPAC official who is a Vietnam War veteran. “We’re going to do everything we can until their family members are home.”