Former Marine Combat Veteran Steers DoD Full Accounting Efforts
By Rudi Williams
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Mar. 21, 2002 A Marine Vietnam War combat veteran and staunch supporter of the POW/Missing Personnel issue now steers the organization that oversees the nation's efforts for a full accounting of missing servicemen.
Jerry D. Jennings, DoD's deputy assistant secretary of defense for prisoner of war and missing personnel affairs and director of the Defense POW and Missing Personnel Office, says he's determined to keep the nation's promise of the fullest possible accounting of missing American servicemen. Photo by Rudi Williams.
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
In August 2001, Jerry D. Jennings accepted the position of deputy assistant secretary of defense for prisoner of war and missing personnel affairs and director of the Defense POW and Missing Personnel Office.
Jennings said his combat experience in Vietnam helps him appreciate the tragedy of war -- "the idea that war is hell. We lose people. We have people maimed for life, the injuries, all the suffering that's associated with war. And the idea of loved ones back home. Victims go beyond the immediate family. You've got the extended family and it goes into the community."
His responsibilities include all matters pertaining to missing personnel and for establishing uniform policies and procedures leading to the fullest possible accounting of Americans missing in action from all of America's wars and conflicts. The mission includes the rescue of service members who fall in harm's way as a result of combat.
Jennings hit the road for high-level meetings in Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam shortly after taking his position. "In Laos, we met with national, provincial and district leaders -- chief-type leadership, governors and ministers," he said. He went next to Cambodia to meet with Prime Minister Hun Sen and other national leaders and said he was taken aback when Sen voiced surprise by the visit. He asked why the surprise.
"There are 5,000 missing in New York City at the World Trade Center (at that time). You have so many missing in New York City," he recalled Sen saying. "Why are you coming here for just a few missing?"
"Mister Prime Minister, those victims in New York City aren't missing," Jennings said he responded. "We know exactly where they are. But the GIs, the American soldiers that are missing in Cambodia, we don't know where they are. That's why we want to be here."
The former Marine is striving to harness new approaches with which to deal with the Vietnamese, Laotians and Cambodians. He emphasized, though, that the quest for missing American servicemen isn't limited to Southeast Asia.
Full accounting is a global effort that includes missing World War II, Korean War and Cold War personnel. Therefore, Jennings said, he wants to search in China, Burma, North Korea and other areas. His office has identified four World War II crash sites in Burma where officials expect to find remains of aircrews.
A four- to six-person team is searching through Soviet Gulag records in Moscow to see if any U.S. servicemen were ever held in that prison system. So far, no such evidence has been found, Jennings said.
He said the unpopularity of the Vietnam War made things traumatic for those who were involved and who came back. They didn't have the patriotism and love of country surrounding them the way it surrounds our troops now, he said.
"I believe we're living in an era now where love of country, love of flag, and respect for the U.S. military is probably as high as it has been since World War II," Jennings said.
He called military and civilian search and recovery team members "unsung heroes." Most people don't realize the dangers and hardship searchers face, Jennings said.
"They brave harsh conditions, long hours, often unbearable weather, and the terrain and jungles they work in are filled with incurable tropical diseases, unexploded ordnance and other dangers," he said.
The task force lost seven Americans and nine Vietnamese on April 7, 2001, in the crash of their Russian helicopter while searching for remains of missing American servicemen, Jennings noted.
"They were looking for the fallen heroes of a war, and they end up dying in the process," he said. "They're heroes; they died searching for the remains of other heroes."
Acknowledging his office's past accomplishments, Jennings said he wants to improve on that outstanding record.
"They laid the groundwork and I want to see us move forward with Vietnam, realize more success with them in terms of opening up archives and old records and oral histories," he said. "There is a whole group of Vietnamese wartime leaders who haven't been identified who might shed some light on our missing Americans.
"I just have no doubt about it," Jennings said. "Logic tells me those Vietnamese veterans know something, but they haven't been talked to. We need to identify them and locate them. They're getting old and we need to talk to them, find out what they know. Hopefully, they'll provide some pieces for the puzzle."
Jennings said he would like immediate and extended families of each war and conflict to understand that America will not stop seeking the fullest possible accounting of missing servicemen.
"This is a serious effort. We're determined to keep the promise," he said. "We want the message to really go beyond the families, particularly to the troops in the field, so they'll know, 'If something happens to me, I can be certain that I'm going to be brought home.'"
Monthly family and veterans' updates are held in cities across the country to keep loved ones and others up-to-date about the latest activities of the full accounting operations.
"We set a record recently in San Diego with more than 120 family members of Korean War, Vietnam War and Cold War missing servicemen present at the meeting," Jennings said. "The families seem to find the meetings very rewarding. They're able to talk to their government, get facts on their loved one and the status of the search. It seems to give them some comfort."