POW-MIA families' meeting overshadowed by departure of DPAA leader
By DIANNA CAHN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: June 23, 2016
ARLINGTON, Va. — It’s been a decades-long journey fraught with political and emotional fissures for the families gathered this week at the Hilton Crystal City to get the annual update on loved ones who went missing during the Vietnam War.
They have faced hits and misses in excavations, lost records and bureaucratic setbacks along the way.
On Thursday, as the National League of Families of American Prisoners and Missing in Southeast Asia held its annual meeting, they listened as officials promised to remain committed in the face of another obstacle: the sudden resignation last week of the director of the new agency charged with recovering the missing.
Michael Linnington announced Friday that he was leaving the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency to become chief executive officer at the beleaguered veterans charity Wounded Warrior Project.
“Today’s presentation had to be revised extensively due to the completely unexpected resignation of Mike Linnington,” began Richard Childress, senior policy advisor for the league, who spoke Thursday morning in Arlington.
Childress said that while Linnington had a successful first year in merging three government entities into one functional agency, in the decades-long quest for full accounting, he will go down in history as “a shooting star that appeared briefly.”
“I wish Mike well in his new, much less challenging post,” he said to a silent room rapt with attention. “But his sudden departure has set the issue back once again, especially given his previous stance that this was an abiding priority for him.”
Childress also told the crowd about a historic opportunity for recovery in the opening of relations with Vietnam and Laos, and the promotions of key figures in both countries. He expressed frustration that President Barack Obama’s administration has been vague in its addressing of new initiatives, even after visit to Vietnam last month. And he warned that without a comprehensive agreement with the Vietnamese — to share information, databases and archives along with excavation efforts — full accounting won’t be achieved.
More than 83,000 Americans are still unaccounted for since World War II, and a priority has been placed on recovering the remains of 1,618 prisoners of war and missing from Vietnam.
Childress said the league has maintained strong pressure on the government to keep those missing in Vietnam as the priority.
“The opportunity is now, right now,” said the longtime league CEO Ann Mills-Griffiths. “I totally agree with him.”
Mills-Griffiths acknowledged that she has been seen as a lightning rod with her outspoken and unrelenting pressure, but noted that her ability to act without a chain of command has given her power to force the hand of government officials and to obtain documents from the Vietnamese after years of denials that they existed.
“I don’t care if they think I am easy to get along with,” she said. “I am fair and honest.”
The audience applauded politely for a speech from Daniel Kritenbrink, a top Asian affairs policy adviser to Obama, who described the president’s trip to Vietnam and upcoming trip to Laos, but failed to get into specifics about agreements on the accounting of war remains.
Keynote speaker Peter Levine, the DOD undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness, acknowledged that there have been failings in the government’s efforts to recover its war missing, but vowed that the efforts would not stop.
“I know that too often we fail to meet your hopes, our expectations and our goals,” Levine said. “But I will say that no nation has invested as much effort as us in search and retrieval of fallen service personnel from battlefields around the world.”
Levine, who was standing in for Defense Secretary Robert Work, drew resounding applause when he affirmed commitment to the mission.
“What we have to remember is our fallen heroes did not quit and they gave up their tomorrow so we could have today. So we cannot quit until we see a tomorrow in which all of our fallen can return home.”
Speaking to the group early Thursday afternoon, Linnington said he did not make the decision to leave easily but after 35 years in uniform, he felt passionate about helping sick and injured servicemembers after going to war with them. He also believed he was leaving DPAA in a good place, with more work to do but on the right path.
“I want to let everyone here know that was a not a decision I made easily,” he said.
Linnington said when he took over, DPAA was a year old, had identified just nine remains, had a too-small budget with Congress threatening to shrink it if the pace of action didn’t increase and was not fully operational. Since then, he said DPAA has identified over 100 remains in the first six months of 2016 and has obtained budgetary commitment through 2016 and a promise to keep Vietnam’s unaccounted-for as the priority through 2017.
He reassured the families that while the agency had stepped up efforts to recover World War II and Korea remains, it had sustained the pace of investigations and recovery for Vietnam and had invested 74 percent of its resources — about $34 million out of $44 million, he said — and more than 50 percent of its investigative and recovery teams to Vietnam.
There are still things that need to be done, he said, including hiring knowledgeable and experienced people and streamlining case management by making case files available to families in real time. That project had hit a snag with the Defense Department over privacy issues, he said.
“We are a different agency today than we were a year ago,” he said. “So I am optimistic about the way ahead and I certainly would not have entertained any offer for employments from somebody else if I didn’t think the road ahead was pretty clear.”