Lawmakers boost funding to identify Korean War remains, defense priorities
WASHINGTON — The Senate has approved provisions that would boost funding for the identification of Korean War remains and trigger a study of a new digital, military health records system.
The approvals took place by the second day of Senate floor debate on a more than $850 billion spending plan to fund defense, labor, health and human services and education priorities. Of that, the vast majority, $675 billion, would be directed to defense spending.
So far, senators approved an amendment to the so-called “minibus” appropriations bill, H.R.6157, to direct an additional $10 million towards the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, or DPAA, to aid the ongoing identification of remains turned over last month by North Korea.
They also approved a study for the new Military Health System Genesis electronic system that lets clinics share medical records for servicemembers, veterans and dependents. In the coming days, they might debate several more measures, including one to purchase an additional Navy littoral combat ship and possible, new funding requirements for the new Army Futures Command in Texas.
“First and foremost is our promise to defend the nation — and to meet our obligation to the brave men and women who do so. To ensure that if we send them into battle, they will be prepared and equipped to prevail,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said in opening remarks to Tuesday’s debate. “This week, we have the opportunity to follow through by appropriating the necessary resources.”
The debate follows this month’s passage of the 2019 National Defense Authorization Act, which would authorize a wave of significant military increases, including servicemembers’ biggest pay boost in nearly a decade, higher troop levels and new equipment and weapons for the upcoming fiscal year.
But the effort moves on two tracks: the annual NDAA sets policy changes and expenditures for the military and determines how the money will be spent, while the defense appropriations bill, which is now part of the larger labor, health and human services and education spending bill, is what actually moves money to the Pentagon to support the plan.
By including the defense spending measure with a package that includes other priorities, it’s more likely to gain passage by the start of the fiscal year on Oct. 1, lawmakers have said. Otherwise, lawmakers will have to turn to a temporary funding measure, known as a continuing resolution.
“By combining these bills in one package, we increase the certainty they will be enacted into law, on time, and avoiding the devastating effect of long-term continuing resolutions,” said Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., vice chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee.
Lawmakers are expected to continue debate in the coming days on the massive measure, which now includes a $10 million boost to aid DPAA in its work to identify 55 boxes of Korean War remains turned over July 27 by the North Koreans.
Of the 7,700 missing American servicemembers who fought in the Korean War between 1950 and 1953, about 5,300 remain in North Korea, according to DPAA, the group in charge of searches for missing troops and prisoners of war.
Many of the boxes contain remains recovered from the North Korean village of Sinhung-Ri, a town just east of the Chosin Reservoir, officials have said. American soldiers and Marines fought in November and December 1950 along the infamous reservoir against Chinese troops during a brutal and frigid battle that cost thousands of lives.
Among the roughly 5,300 missing American servicemembers believed to remain in North Korea, at least 1,600 are believed to be in the vicinity of the Chosin Reservoir.
“For the families who remain lost, this is a long-awaited opportunity to gain closure and give their loved ones the respectful, dignified remembrance that they deserve,” said Sen. Deb Fischer, R-Neb., sponsor of the DPAA funding amendment that passed by a vote of 85-0, with several lawmakers absent during the rare August session for the Senate. “For that to happen, we must ensure that DPAA has the resources it needs to conduct the forensic analysis of these new remains and continue working to locate and account for American servicemembers.”
The Pentagon recently said it would double the size of its Hawaii-based team responsible for identifying the Korean War remains from five to 10 scientists. Last month’s transfer was the first from North Korea in more than a decade.
The team is collecting DNA samples and examining teeth and bones to begin the process of identifying the individuals, which could take anywhere from a couple of months to several years. For example, some remains recovered in the 1990s still have not been positively identified.
And the remains are apparently in moderate to poor condition, DPAA officials said this month.
This month, DPAA returned a dog tag recovered for the late Army Master Sgt. Charles Horbert McDaniel, a medic who went missing in the Korean War nearly 70 years ago. It marked the first physical confirmation that U.S. soldiers could be among the remains.