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Capt. Kristoffer Mills, head of the JPAC mission in Vietnam's Lang Son province, looks at an object he found in a mud sifting station. Mills said one of the difficult aspects of running a mission is building a team from a group of people who may have never worked together before.
Capt. Kristoffer Mills, head of the JPAC mission in Vietnam's Lang Son province, looks at an object he found in a mud sifting station. Mills said one of the difficult aspects of running a mission is building a team from a group of people who may have never worked together before. (Ashley Rowland / S&S)
Capt. Kristoffer Mills, head of the JPAC mission in Vietnam's Lang Son province, looks at an object he found in a mud sifting station. Mills said one of the difficult aspects of running a mission is building a team from a group of people who may have never worked together before.
Capt. Kristoffer Mills, head of the JPAC mission in Vietnam's Lang Son province, looks at an object he found in a mud sifting station. Mills said one of the difficult aspects of running a mission is building a team from a group of people who may have never worked together before. (Ashley Rowland / S&S)
A Vietnamese worker pays for a glass of tea at an outdoor store, set up just outside the JPAC dig site. Many of the 90 Vietnamese hired to help with the dig, and the 17-member JPAC team, bought snacks and drinks from the vendor during their hourly breaks.
A Vietnamese worker pays for a glass of tea at an outdoor store, set up just outside the JPAC dig site. Many of the 90 Vietnamese hired to help with the dig, and the 17-member JPAC team, bought snacks and drinks from the vendor during their hourly breaks. (Ashley Rowland / S&S)

With every passing year, finding the missing gets harder.

Witnesses die, or forget where a pilot’s jet crashed, or where a servicemember was shot. The ground where they lay erodes with time. Eventually, their bones crumble and disappear.

Still, the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command keeps looking for the 88,000 U.S. servicemembers who have gone missing in combat since World War II.

It’s an enormous, expensive undertaking that requires a staff of 400. The command’s annual budget for Southeast Asia alone is $21 million.

On average, anthropologists at JPAC’s lab in Hawaii — the largest in the world — identify the remains of six servicemembers each month. And leaders say finding them is worth the cost, in terms of both money and human effort.

“If we can afford to put these kids in uniform, strap jets to their back and send them off to war, then we can damn well afford to spend what it takes to get them back home,” said Ambassador Charles Ray, deputy assistant to the secretary of defense for POW/Missing Personnel Affairs, during a phone interview.

You talk about how much it costs to find these guys. How much does it cost to conduct a war? Once you spend money to conduct a war, it’s worth spending a little trying to bring our fallen soldiers home,” he said.

Brig. Gen. Michael Flowers, commander of the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command, said time is JPAC’s worst enemy, but the agency is expanding.

By 2011, JPAC plans to more than double the amount of floor space in its forensics laboratory and consolidate its operations into a new building in Hawaii, where it now operates out of several buildings.

“We will continue this mission until the president says stop,” he said during a phone interview. “This isn’t about a cost-benefit analysis. This is about the promise that we make to bring the individuals back to their families.”

Searching for the missing is physically demanding and sometimes dangerous. JPAC excavation teams have hiked in the jungle, climbed cliffs and trekked through riverbeds to find them.

Team members must be in top physical condition, and they may be trained in mountaineering or scuba diving. Seven Americans and nine Vietnamese surveying a potential JPAC excavation site died in 2001 when their Russian-built helicopter crashed into a mountain.

“We spend a lot of time rehearsing what to do if someone was injured,” said Lt. Col. James Saenz, commander of JPAC’s Detachment Two, responsible for searching for missing Vietnam War servicemembers.

He doesn’t foresee JPAC’s work ending in his lifetime. But as time makes finding remains more difficult, technology is making identifying them easier. DNA testing lets anthropologists make identifications if they have just five grams of bone, an amount slightly larger than the size of a quarter.

But sometimes, not even that much bone is left after years of erosion.

“It’s almost a race,” Saenz said. “Time is making it hard, but technology and improvements in our process is having us pretty well-balanced.”

When combat ends in the Middle East, JPAC will be responsible for finding the remains of those missing — both military and possibly some civilian contractors covered by legal agreements with the U.S. military.

Currently, four Americans are missing in Iraq, and none are missing in Afghanistan.

The U.S. military has a legal responsibility to recover remains of some contractors, Ray said, but to some extent, there’s a moral responsibility to recover civilians as well.

“At this point, I would have to say that yes, there would be certain contractors we would be responsible for. One can only guess what the political will will be in the future for those who are not covered” under legal agreements, he said.

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