Joint Command Focuses on America's Missing
By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
HICKAM AIR FORCE BASE, Hawaii, Sep. 13, 2004 The general charged with providing the fullest possible accounting of missing service members says the military is sending an important message to families of the missing, veterans and, just as importantly, today's men and women in uniform.
A joint-service detail carries a transfer case containing
remains during an Aug. 13, 2004, repatriation ceremony at Hickam Air Force
Base, Hawaii. Photo Sgt. Sean Thomas
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
POW/MIA Recognition Day honors the sacrifices service members and their families have made for their country, Army Brig. Gen. W. Montague Winfield, head of Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command headquartered here, said in an interview with American Forces Press Service.
It also offers a reminder that the United States is committed to bringing its fallen service members home so they can be returned to their families and won't give up, no matter how long it takes or how difficult it might be.
The joint POW/MIA command works year round to repatriate and identify the remains of about 88,000 U.S. service members missing from the nation's wars. They include about 78,000 missing from World War II, 8,100 from the Korean Conflict, 1,800 from the Vietnam Conflict and about 120 from the Cold War.
The mission is uniquely American, dating back to World War II and now embodied in the U.S. military Code of Conduct, Winfield said. While most countries around the world bury their war dead where they fall, the United States promises its service members that it will do everything in its power to bring them home.
"This is a very sacred and noble mission. I can't think of anything more rewarding for our military to be doing right now than keeping the promise that America makes to all of its heroes fallen heroes and those who are currently in uniform today," he said.
Working to fulfill that promise sends joint-service teams from Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command to potential crash and burial sites around the world. This summer alone, recovery teams conducted searches in Tibet, China, Albania, France, Vietnam, North Korea and Laos. There, they worked with their host government counterparts to conduct investigations and, when appropriate, full- scale excavations.
The missions can be daunting. A team currently deployed to Tibet spent months training up to conduct a recovery mission at 12,000 feet altitude, with its base camp at 17,000 feet. Other missions require teams to trek through mountains and glaciers, traverse difficult terrain in 4 x 4 vehicles, and even rappel down cliff sides.
"Most of the easier missions have already been done," Winfield said. "What's left now are the difficult ones."
Once teams recover remains and repatriate them to the United States, the command's Central Identification Laboratory uses state-of-the-art scientific techniques to help identify determine their identity.
Winfield said new breakthroughs, including the use of mitochrondrial DNA in investigations, are helping the staff make identifications once not considered possible. "If you think about it, 12 years ago we were sitting on parts of remains that we assumed we would never identify, because 12 years ago we didn't have DNA," he said.
Winfield said he expects other emerging technologies to help speed up the identification process. "We're just waiting for the technology to catch up with our needs," he said.
In the meantime, the lab staff typically identifies about two service members a week, mostly through dental records. "The disappointment is that we just can't do enough fast enough," Winfield said.
Since 1973, the laboratory until last year known as the U.S. Army Central Identification Laboratory, Hawaii -- has positively identified 1,175 people. "That's pretty significant, but it's still pretty daunting when think about what we're still up against," Winfield said.
While acknowledging that some Americans may believe that the country will eventually give up in its effort to repatriate and identify its missing war dead, Winfield said he's convinced they're wrong.
He said last year's merger of the Army lab and the 11-year-old Joint Task Force-Full Accounting into a permanent command focused on missing service members and "sends the right message that we're here to stay and that we remain committed to our mission."
"It says that our nation is keeping its promise to bring home every American POW/MIA, no matter how long it takes," Winfield said. "We will never quit until they are home."