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Agency made its goal with 201 war dead identified in fiscal year 2017

By WILLIAM COLE | The Honolulu Star-Advertiser | Published: October 9, 2017

HONOLULU (Tribune News Service) — The Pentagon agency that recovers missing American war dead made a record 201 individual identifications during fiscal 2017, meeting for the first time a benchmark set by Congress in 2010, officials said.

The Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency accounted for 183 missing personnel and made 201 first-time identifications of remains of U.S. service members, agency Director Kelly McKeague said in an email.

“These numbers are an unprecedented achievement in the accounting mission’s history,” McKeague said. “This is without question a testament to the teamwork and tenacity of the entire DPAA team. With over 600 military and civilian personnel stationed and operating around the world, DPAA is committed to researching, investigating, recovering and identifying U.S. service members and civilians who made the ultimate sacrifice for our nation.”

The difference in the “accounted for” and “identification” numbers occurs because the agency can account for missing from, for example, a bomber crew, and bury those remains as a group in a national cemetery and then later identify individual crew members if more information becomes available.

The identification allows families to bury loved ones in the cemetery of their choosing, the agency said.

DPAA, which replaced the former Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command, has an $85 million lab and offices at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-­­Hickam. More than 400 personnel are based in Hawaii.

Identification totals over the past six years show a roller-coaster history for the recovery effort, which underwent a Pentagon-­ordered reorganization starting in 2014 amid accusations the work conducted by a handful of agencies around the country was fragmented, redundant and hampered by interagency disputes. A consolidation created DPAA.

Eighty IDs were made in fiscal 2012, 60 in 2013, 87 in 2014, 80 in 2015 and 164 in 2016, according to the agency. The 2017 fiscal year ended Sept. 30.

“Several factors contributed to (the 2017) success, including, talented and dedicated subject matter experts; advanced scientific methods (and) vigorous operations balanced between field activities and disinterments,” McKeague said.

A 1977 Damien Memorial School graduate who was born in Liliha and grew up in Papakolea, McKeague, a retired Air Force major general, was named director of DPAA in September and works out of Washington, D.C.

Congress mandated in 2010 that the Pentagon have the capacity to identify 200 MIAs a year by fiscal 2015 — a goal the agency failed to meet as it struggled with the reorganization. Amid mounting pressure to make more IDs, the Pentagon announced in 2015 it was taking the unprecedented step of ordering the disinterment of all of the USS Oklahoma’s 388 casualties from Pearl Harbor buried as “unknowns” at Punchbowl cemetery to identify crew members.

Advances in science, including DNA, have now made the identifications possible.

DPAA, along with the Department of Veterans Affairs, also exhumed 94 Tarawa unknowns and continues to exhume USS West Virginia and Korean War unknowns. Fifteen Korean War unknowns, 49 from the Oklahoma, 18 from Tarawa and three from Burma who were buried at Punchbowl — for a total of 85 — helped make up the 201 identifications for the year. Many families want identification and return of a relative for burial in a hometown cemetery.

By conflict, approximately 42 of the IDs for 2017 came from the Korean War, 16 from Southeast Asia and 144 from World War II, the agency said.

The full recovery of missing American war dead remains a daunting task. More than 83,000 remain missing from World War II, Korea, Vietnam, the Cold War, Gulf wars and other conflicts, according to the agency. Of those losses, 75 percent are in the Asia-Pacific, with over 41,000 of the missing presumed lost at sea.

©2017 The Honolulu Star-Advertiser
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Kelly McKeague, Director of the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency.
MONICA KIN/U.S. ARMY

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