Personnel Recovery Agency Works to Bring All Americans Home Alive
By Kathleen T. Rhem
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, May. 10, 2006 Every day, officials at the Joint Personnel Recovery Agency track the status of efforts to find 20 Americans believed to still be alive but "isolated" outside the United States.
In personnel recovery terminology, isolated personnel are U.S. servicemembers, Defense Department civilians, or contractors separated from their unit who are or may be in a situation where they must survive, evade, resist or escape, a specialist in these "SERE" techniques said here yesterday.
Air Force Tech. Sgt. Shawn E. Cross, a SERE specialist at the Joint Personnel Recovery Agency, Fort Belvoir, Va., described his unit's mission, priorities and challenges to combatant command senior enlisted leaders and service senior enlisted advisors meeting in the Pentagon. These select leaders are meeting here this week at the invitation of Command Sgt. Maj. William J. Gainey, senior enlisted advisor to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Unlike the Defense Prisoner of War/Missing Personnel Office, which seeks full accounting of servicemembers missing in past wars, the Joint Personnel Recovery Agency monitors activities in cases where individuals are believed still to be alive.
"We track the living, and we try to make sure they come home," Cross said.
The longest-isolated person the agency tracks is in the case of Navy Capt. Michael Scott Speicher. Speicher's F/A-18 Hornet fighter was shot down by enemy fire during the first day of the air war over Iraq, Jan. 17, 1991, during Operation Desert Storm. Four months later, he was listed as killed in action/body not recovered. Conflicting reports and intelligence information since then led the secretary of the Navy in 2001 to change Speicher's status to missing in action and in late 2002 to again change his status to "missing-captured."
In the early days of Operation Iraqi Freedom, officials were hopeful they would find information within Iraq on Speicher's status. None has been forthcoming. But specialists working at the JPRA still think of the missing pilot as a living man out there somewhere needing rescue. "Until we have proof otherwise, we assume he's captured," Cross said.
The most recent case is that of a non-DoD U.S. citizen kidnapped in Iraq in January. Of the 20 active cases the agency tracks, 11 are of DoD personnel and nine are non-DoD civilians. Not all cases the agency tracks are focused on Iraq. Three U.S. contractors are reported captured in Colombia, and several non-DoD civilians are reported kidnapped in Colombia and Panama.
Army Command Sgt. Maj. Michael Balch, senior enlisted leader for U.S. Southern Command, is familiar with the challenges of tracking the status of kidnapped Americans through isolated regions of triple-canopy jungle in Latin America. He said chasing leads in the region is like chasing a needle in a haystack. "Just developing viable leads is very difficult," he said.
Since the beginning of Operation Iraqi Freedom, the JPRA has sent 27 people to Iraq to provide personnel recovery support and give guidance in that theater. Personnel recovery specialists work to ensure units are correctly monitoring and tracking all individuals and give commanders advice on how to react if an individual goes missing or is captured.
The agency also provides U.S. military units with tools to help individuals evade and escape if isolated from their units. Some products the agency provides or has developed are:
- Evasion charts, which are maps and charts printed on sturdy non-paper material that include graphic and text information on a specific area. Cross said there were 11 different such charts in the supply system before Sept. 11, 2001. Today there are 49.
- One-way signal-emitter tags that are small, lightweight and attach to the uniform for help in finding isolated individuals.
- "Blood chits," which are written notices in several languages carried by aircrews in combat. If their aircraft is shot down, the notice identifies the Americans, encourages the local population to assist them, and promises a reward for doing so.
- "Pointee-talkees," language aids containing selected phrases in English opposite a translation in a foreign language. They are used by pointing to appropriate phrases. Cross explained that pointee-talkees in use today include phonetic pronunciations of the appropriate phrases in case servicemembers are dealing with people who can't read
These products and skills the agency's specialists help military units develop are designed to help servicemembers who become isolated safely return home. "We're selling an insurance policy that hopefully no one has to cash in," Cross said.
The agency also works to develop reintegration and debriefing protocols for helping people who have been captured reconnect with their lives. Psychologists have developed specific ways to best help people reintegrate and "normalize" their experiences, Cross said. These protocols were most recently used in the case of American reporter Jill Carroll, who was kidnapped in Iraq and held hostage for more than two months before being released unharmed.
Experts are using lessons learned in her case to better help reintegrate servicemembers in future cases, Cross said.
Though "joint" is part of the agency's name because it provides assistance to all services, the Joint Personnel Recovery Agency is predominately staffed by Air Force personnel. Cross explained that the agency is funded by the Air Force, and that the Air Force is the only service with a "survive, evade, resist, escape" military occupational specialty.
He said funding is the biggest challenge the agency faces. Unless more money becomes available through funds dedicated to fighting the global war on terrorism, the agency's two schools -- at Fredericksburg, Va., and Spokane, Wash. -- will be forced to reduce the number of students they can accommodate.
At the conclusion of Cross's briefing, Gainey recounted a recent visit he made to the agency's headquarters and urged his fellow senior enlisted leaders to visit the organization and learn more about what the personnel recovery specialists do. "You'll really see why what they do is so important," he said.