WASHINGTON — A single Pentagon office will now be in charge of the troubled effort to identify and recover the remains of missing U.S. war dead, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel announced Monday.
The order will create a “single accountable organization that has complete oversight of personnel accounting resources, research and operations,” overseen by the Undersecretary of Defense for Policy, Hagel said.
The decision follows a series of damning reports in the past year about the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command and the Defense POW/Missing Personnel Office, the two agencies that had primary responsibility for MIA recovery efforts. The two will now be combined, along with certain functions of the Air Force’s Life Sciences Equipment Laboratory, Hagel said.
To improve the search, identification and recovery process, DOD will create a centralized database and case management system containing all missing servicemembers’ information, Hagel said. The Armed Forces Medical Examiner working for the new agency will be the single identification authority. The medical examiner will oversee the science operations of the Central Identification Laboratory in Hawaii, as well as satellite labs in Omaha, Neb., and Dayton, Ohio.
Families of the missing — who Hagel admitted have not always received clear communications from DOD — will also have a single point of contact with the new agency to make it easier for them to learn about search and identification activities.
“These steps will help improve the accounting mission, increase the number of identifications of our missing, provide greater transparency for their families and expand our case file system to include all missing personnel,” he said.
The Pentagon has been under fire from Congress and other quarters for the performance of the two offices.
Hagel in February directed Michael Lumpkin, acting under secretary for policy, to develop a plan to consolidate various Defense Department organizations charged with identifying and recovering remains of U.S. servicemembers lost in past conflicts.
The plan should aim to create a centralized database of missing personnel, and reduce the duplication of efforts across DOD agencies while improving transparency for families, Hagel ordered at the time in a memo obtained by Stars and Stripes.
Among the revelations, Stars and Stripes in January obtained internal JPAC communications alleging that the agencies Central Identification Laboratory personnel had been 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.
Earlier, the newspaper reported charges that JPAC and DPMO officials ignored leads, prematurely declared MIAs deceased as unrecoverable and argued against identifying unknown remains in government custody when evidence suggested they could be identified.
As reported by Stars and Stripes earlier this year, the French national crime laboratory identified the remains of a U.S. soldier buried in a German cemetery after JPAC refused to exhume and test the remains, citing DOD policy.
Among other revelations, in October, the Pentagon acknowledged that JPAC had been holding phony remains arrival ceremonies for seven years. And in July last year, 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.”
According to a Government Accountability Office audit released in July, failures of leadership and bureaucratic tussles plague Pentagon recovery and identification efforts.
Hagel thanked veterans groups for their advocacy on the issue. He singled out Ann Mills-Griffiths, head of the National League of Families, who in December presented him with detailed recommendations aimed at improving DOD’s MIA recovery operations.
Mills-Griffiths, chairman of the board of the group formed more than 40 years ago to bring attention to the Vietnam POW/MIA issue, said Hagel had been very receptive of the group’s recommendations. For years, she said, clashing bureaucracies and power struggles have hampered American efforts to account for and recover the missing in various wars.
“What we hope to see now is a process of checks and balances that utilizes the capabilities of everyone that contributes to the accounting process, and that all will be pulling together … without concern over who gets the credit or who’s in control,” she said.
Reining in the organizations will take some doing, she said.
“I’m glad, but of course the proof is in the pudding,” she said. “We’ll see what happens over the next 18 months as they get into the nitty-gritty of reorganization.”
In a statement, William A. Thien, national commander of the Veterans of Foreign Wars of the United States, said personal involvement by Hagel — a combat veteran with two Purple Hearts from fighting in Vietnam — was key to the effort.
“Any effort that helps to recover, identify and return more missing service personnel to their loved ones is a positive initiative,” said Thien, “and the VFW looks forward to continuing to work with the secretary and his team to make this happen.”
The defense chief said he hoped the reforms announced Monday would bring a dramatic improvement to the nation’s efforts to honor the missing from previous wars.
“There’s not a more poignant, emotional, important issue in our society today,” Hagel said. “You take care of the people who gave their lives to this country and you take care of their families.”