Defense Officials Offer Advice to POWs' Families
By Kathleen T. Rhem
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, March 31, 2003 Defense officials want to make families of prisoners of war aware that what they say may hurt their loved ones.
Statements made to the media containing personal information about prisoners of war could be used by enemy interrogators to make life harder for POWs, said Air Force Col. John Atkins, deputy commander of the Joint Personnel Recovery Agency, at Fort Belvoir, Va.
"There's an old adage with interrogators, that to know you is to exploit you," Atkins said during an interview with the American Forces Radio and Television Service. "If the enemy knows things about the POW, they can and will use that against them."
This includes seemingly innocuous information such as family members' names, hometowns or interests, he explained.
Immediate family members of POWs are assigned military casualty assistance officers to help them through this trying period. These officers and senior noncommissioned officers can offer advice on dealing with the media or help arrange assistance through military public affairs offices.
However, extended family members, friends and acquaintances don't have the benefit of this counsel unless they seek it out. They may make statements to the media that could come back to haunt someone in captivity.
Service members who are prisoners of war are only required to provide their name, rank, service number and date of birth. The U.S. military's Code of Conduct instructs POWs to resist providing any additional information to the best of their abilities.
Additionally, televised statements can be taken out of context or electronically edited to twist things around. "Any outbursts of emotion can be manipulated by the captor against the POW," Atkins said.
He noted there is evidence that the Iraqis used these techniques during the 1991 Gulf War.
The colonel also cautioned families against releasing information about family problems to the media. The information could get channeled to the POW and cause even more distress. "The POW is in captivity. There's nothing he can do about those things, so that only adds to his frustration and stress," Atkins said.
He stressed that Americans' right of free speech doesn't go away when a loved one is captured by an enemy and that the military can't prevent anyone from speaking to the media, but added that families and military officials all want the same result -- the safe return of POWs.
"With that freedom (of speech) comes responsibility, and it behooves all of us to know what our responsibilities are to the folks who are POWs now," he said.