Agencies Work Behind Scenes to Bring Home Missing Troops
By Fred W. Baker III
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Sept. 18, 2008 Since the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have begun, thousands of American soldiers have been welcomed home with elaborate parades, gymnasiums packed with tearful spouses and children, and commanders proclaiming from podiums great deeds done in battle.
Navy Rear Adm. Donna L. Crisp, who commands the JPAC, talks about emerging technologies that are boosting efforts to recover and identify missing servicemembers. Defense Dept. photo by Fred W. Baker III
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
Still others have had more tragic homecomings, instead returning in flag-draped coffins to grieving spouses and families; their ceremonies replaced with memorials held quietly in serene cemeteries across the country.
But 88,000 servicemembers from wars past are buried on foreign shores and at sea, servicemembers whose mothers and fathers, husbands, wives and children have had neither the pleasure nor the closure of any homecoming.
Quietly, behind the scenes of the current conflicts, hundreds of military troops and civilians have gone about the business of bringing them home, one by one.
“We’re probably the first nation since the Roman Empire to have soldiers in so many different places in the world,” said Charles A. Ray, deputy assistant secretary of defense for prisoner of war and missing personnel affairs and a former U.S. ambassador to Cambodia.
Ray’s office is charged with developing the policy and overseeing the efforts of the nearly 600 men and women in a handful of agencies across the country who work to research, recover and identify those who still are listed as missing from past wars.
In testimony before Congress this summer, Ray called their efforts the embodiment of the nation’s commitment to those it sends into harm’s way.
“If we can afford to take young and men and women and shove them out the door to go to war, we can afford to do what is necessary to bring them home and take care of them after they come back home,” Ray said in an interview later at his office near the Pentagon.
“You ask people to sacrifice for their country,” he said. “To me, that is a minimum payback for that sacrifice — not only on the part of the individuals, but for their families as well.”
Ray is no stranger to the sacrifices of war. He served as a Special Forces soldier in combat. Coming out of his second combat tour in Vietnam, Ray acknowledged, he was skeptical and had no expectation that the government would continue searching for those missing there, many of whom were his comrades.
In fact, it was nearly 10 years after the war in Vietnam ended before the U.S. government would return to begin searching for the missing there. But now, as the head of the agency that leads the search, Ray said rapid advances in technology and sweeping changes on the international landscape have opened doors to recoveries and identifications that were closed before.
Former enemies have become allies. DNA testing, once deemed unreliable, has developed to become a key piece of evidence in nearly 85 percent of all missing troop identifications, Ray said. The United States, for the first time, is working on agreements to begin recovering the remains of servicemembers missing in countries such as India.
Navy Rear Adm. Donna L. Crisp, who commands the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command, or JPAC, in Hawaii, called recent negotiations groundbreaking.
Crisp is working with the government of India to send recovery teams there, hopeful it will happen next year. And talks with China that were interrupted by the Olympics, she added, are going well to have recovery teams return there after five years.
“This mission, because it is so unique and so humanitarian, is accepted by nations for what we are doing,” Crisp said. “Every nation that I have worked with has been very open and is willing to assist us.”
The command’s headquarters is based in the U.S. Pacific Command because that is where most of the servicemembers are missing and where nearly 80 percent of the organization’s efforts are concentrated. Recovery teams have worked in Laos for more than 25 years and in Vietnam for 20. Teams regularly are in Cambodia and are close to exhausting all leads there, Ray said.
Crisp recently met with South Korean officials to begin a mutual effort look for each other’s lost servicemembers there. South Korea has 130,000 soldiers missing from the Korean War. The two agencies are exchanging scientists and information to aid the search.
No other country invests as heavily in servicemember recovery efforts as the United States, Ray and Crisp agreed. This has propelled DoD recovery technologies to the forefront internationally, leaving many countries eager to learn from their work.
The Armed Forces Identification DNA lab in Rockville, Md., is one of the oldest and largest labs in the world working with ancient DNA testing, or testing from severely degraded samples. It is the DNA testing lab for the JPAC, and it recently helped bring to a close a near century-old search for the remains of two children executed alongside the rest of the family of Russia’s last czar.
Russian scientists also traveled to JPAC’s central identification laboratory in Hawaii to study its use of skull identification using photographs. The JPAC has the world’s largest skeletal forensic lab.
The JPAC also is working to have a hydrographic ship scan the coastal waters of Vietnam to identify places where planes may have gone down.
“It’s just, basically, having an adventurous spirit and a scientific desire for discovery to do a better job that keeps us on the cutting edge,” Crisp said.
Still, with all of the technological advances, nothing replaces traditional field work and science, she said.
On any given day, investigative and recovery teams are deployed in some of the most remote regions around the world. Their work takes the teams deep into jungles and to mountain tops. They work with local people for up to two months at a time taking on inhospitable living conditions, rough weather, poisonous snakes and insects and unexploded ordnance. Nine Americans have died in those missions.
“Nothing replaces digging,” Crisp said. “We haven’t found any magic to replace good old American know-how and hard work.”
One of DoD’s biggest challenges in recovering missing servicemembers is the fact that it is fighting the clock in many of the recoveries.
Nearly 78,000 still are missing from World War II, and JPAC’s teams are working possible crash and burial sites that are more than 60 years old. Remains continue to deteriorate. Fields have grown over. Eyewitnesses and immediate family members have moved or died.
The JPAC is attempting to speed the time between recovery and identification of remains by expanding its size. Congress has approved a $100 million, 140,000-square-foot facility that will triple its current lab size. Construction is scheduled for 2010. For the first time, the entire command will be located in one spot; it now is spread across 10 trailers and temporary buildings on three bases in Hawaii.
In the meantime, the Navy has given the lab 20,000 square feet of temporary space so that it can work the identification of more remains simultaneously.
The JPAC lab identifies about two Americans per week, and each case can take years to complete. Historians there work on as many as 800 cases at a time, piecing information together like a puzzle.
To date, the JPAC has identified nearly 1,500 formerly missing servicemembers. They have recovered 913 from the Vietnam War, 107 from the Korean War, 17 from the Cold War, 456 from World War II and four from World War I.
But for all of the DoD’s efforts, the process is still painstakingly slow for those waiting for an identification of a missing family member, Crisp said.
“It is never as fast as it can be. Because if it is your husband or brother, you want to know immediately,” Crisp said. “It’s never fast enough. It’s not fast enough for us, and it’s not fast enough for the families.”
Even second- or third-generation family members feel the impact of a missing servicemember, Ray said.
“As they get older, sometimes the emotion gets stronger, because they are facing leaving the world with unfinished business,” he said.
That’s part of the reason his office hosts 10 family updates across the country each year. At many of the updates, he makes time to answer questions on his office’s efforts. They have met with 14,000 family members since 1995, Ray said.
At each of the updates, Ray’s office encourages family members to have a DNA sample taken. The simple procedure of having a swab of saliva taken can help ensure that if or when their servicemember is recovered, the remains can be identified.
While the DNA rarely is the singular piece of evidence to identify a servicemember, when combined with other evidence, it can be the one piece that puts the puzzle together, Crisp said.
“The most frustrating part is to have gone through all of this and then get to the point where you can’t find the one piece of information that lets you identify the hero,” Crisp said.
For the most part, the families are gracious and many times surprised at the extent of the government’s efforts to bring their servicemember home. Getting away from Washington, D.C., and meeting with the families has a rejuvenating effect on him, Ray said.
“It reminds me of why I do this, and it makes it easy for me to get up in the morning,” Ray said.
Ray said his job serves as a reminder that America’s freedoms came with a sacrifice. Americans shouldn’t forget, he said, because the families of those missing never will forget.
“We have a country blessed, … but it has been the blood, sweat and tears of millions of Americans before us who answered the call when it was necessary, and did what they had to do, to include paying the ultimate price,” Ray said. “We are where we are, standing on their shoulders.”