YEAR IN REVIEW 2014
Turmoil surrounds new JPAC agency; January deadline questioned
By MATTHEW M. BURKE | STARS AND STRIPES Published: December 24, 2014
Turmoil and allegations of malfeasance continue to surround the Defense Department agencies responsible for the search and repatriation of America’s war dead in 2014.
The year before had been a particularly low point for the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command and Defense POW/Missing Personnel Office, which was forced to acknowledge phony repatriation ceremonies and allegations they ignored clues and technology that could have identified the remains of fallen servicemembers.
In January, reports by Stars and Stripes alleged a troubling pattern of wrongdoing and violation of scientific ethics by Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command’s Central Identification Laboratory. These reports detailed botched recovery and identification efforts that spanned modern American military history and included the possible desecration and mishandling of remains, failure to keep critical records, excavation of incorrect sites and the waste of taxpayer funds.
Those reports were soon followed by allegations of mismanagement that led to the burial of an indigenous Southeast Asian with the remains of a U.S. Army pilot from the Vietnam War at Arlington National Cemetery; the positive identification of U.S. Army Pvt. 1st Class Lawrence Gordon by the French after JPAC refused to have him repatriated from an unknown tomb in a German cemetery; and an ongoing lawsuit by World War II families demanding the testing of unknown remains in government hands.
The Defense Department announced an overhaul of the agencies in February that would have JPAC and the Defense POW/Missing Personnel Office combined into a more accountable entity, but a DoD inspector general report in October said that poor leadership and a hostile work environment could continue to plague the mission even after the new agency’s planned debut in January.
Family groups have said they were hopeful when reorganization planning started but have since soured on the efforts. Top leadership has not been sanctioned for accounting failures. W. Montague Winfield, deputy assistant secretary of defense for POW/Missing Personnel Affairs and DPMO director, has resigned to take a job with the Department of Homeland Security.
Defense officials have refused to outline changes to improve accounting efforts. Negotiations with the family groups have been suspended.
Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel’s resignation in November also called the reorganization into question.
“The effort has come to a screeching halt,” the National Alliance of Families said this month in its newsletter.
The Alliance said the January deadline for the new agency would likely be pushed back.