My first husband, Capt. Jerry Zimmer, was an F4B Phantom jet pilot, whose aircraft was shot down on August 29, 1969, approximately 20 miles South of Da Nang, Vietnam, after six months in country. Neither Jerry nor his navigator, 1st Lt. Al Graf, was able to eject, before the aircraft crashed into the Que Son Mountains. Initially Jerry and Al were classified as Killed in Action/No Body Recovered (KIA/NBR). Years later, both Marines were listed as MIA, along with other service members whose bodies were never recovered.
Jerry has been gone nearly a half century, and hope for recovering his remains had run out a long time ago. However, in recent years our family became involved with the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command (JPAC), now merged with the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA), and learned that Jerry’s and Al’s remains might, in fact, be recoverable, so we are doing everything possible to support their efforts to make this happen and bring our guys home where they belong.
NOTE: BLOG POSTS ARE NOT UPDATED, SO INFORMATION MAY HAVE CHANGED OVER TIME.
Archive for March, 2014
As family members with loved ones still unaccounted-for from past wars prepare for changes in how the US Government will speed up recoveries, there is a likelihood that more emphasis will be placed on exhumations of service members’ remains, yet to be identified, interred in America’s 24 burial grounds on foreign soil and presumably in Hawaii. Most are located in Europe and have been a major attraction by American visitors for decades.
The U.S. military’s recent pivot to Asia Pacific generated an urgency for recoveries/identifications of MIAs in that region. In the Manila American Cemetery and Memorial, many of our WWII losses were killed in New Guinea or the Battle of the Philippines and the Allied recapture of the islands, according to the American Battle Monuments Commission — the organization that maintains our military cemeteries. There are no American-maintained cemeteries in Korea or Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia.
Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel made it official on March 31st during a press conference, explaining that the Defense Prisoner of War/Missing Personnel Office (DPMO) and the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command (JPAC) are to be consolidated into one agency, of which has yet to be named. The newly formed agency will report to a civilian, appointed by the President.
At this point, it appears that Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Michael Lumpkin has assumed temporary responsibility. Lumpkin was assigned the task of presenting a plan of how to reorganize the accounting community and given 30 days to complete the assignment. Whoever is appointed to lead the new agency will need nerves of steel. No date was given as to when the agency will be stood up, but it is expected to be headquartered at the Pentagon with changeover coming in weeks, according to one report.
CHANGE IN LAB IDENTIFICATIONS
JPACs Central Identification Laboratory (CIL) will no longer be the lead organization for MIA identifications. The Armed Forces Medical Examiner will work for the new agency and be the single identification authority and oversee operations at the CIL in Hawaii, and satellite labs in Omaha, NE, and Dayton, Ohio. It appears that most remains are expected to be identified through DNA. The Pentagon should have the resources to ensure that all DNA is captured efficiently and quickly. I know how hard DPMO and JPAC worked at every annual meeting and regional meeting to spread the word, but their resources were limited.
Although nothing was mentioned about the role of anthropologists, who have traditionally worked in the field and the lab, I am hopeful that they will continue to assist in the process. Most people do not know that the CIL has earned some of the highest ratings possible in the field of forensic science. It is in the same league as the FBI lab, and in fact has consulted over time with Bureau specialists. The CILs certifications allow their scientists to assist with major disasters throughout the world. The lab, under Dr. Tom Holland, has reportedly never produced a mistaken identification in 20 years. Holland is respected on a global level, as are those who work for him at the top management levels. It was not clear if Holland will be offered a role with the new agency.
JOIN THE SEARCH?
Few details or hardcore questions were asked of Hagel or Lumpkin by the press corps assigned to the Pentagon, namely as to how the military will fit into the newly organized agency, since JPAC is a military command. Because the military is critical for the overall success of the accounting mission, I actually anticipate that military involvement could increase, but with the drawdown, who knows! Even though Lumpkin’s plan calls for expanding opportunities for private search groups to get involved and a host of other ways of doing more with less, I am hoping that the government is sufficiently concerned about liability — operations are dangerous and sometimes hazardous because of UXOs. Plus, there can be political ramifications of sending private groups, as opposed to official groups, to global locations. However, JPAC has been involved with a number of outside groups, and those will likely be given a larger role. Each country has a little different type of welcome mat for teams conducting field operations. My guess is that the new agency will be doing a lot of internal and external policy revisions.
The agency will create a centralized database and case management system that will be comprised of all missing service members’ information. In my opinion, this will be the biggest, most complex part of the reorganization and should reveal a lot about the difficulties that predecessors have had in working many of the cases, especially ones from WWII.
Unless officials understand that historic MIA case files from WWII need to be updated and prioritized before passing them along to operational teams, they will be kicking the can down the road. A good, functioning database should be able to flag those cases that are ready to go. A word of caution — I suggest that the government be very careful not to get rid of experienced forensic analysts and forensic investigators familiar with MIA recoveries — these people can work with whomever is creating a new MIA solutions-oriented program and, hopefully, avoid the garbage in, garbage out situation. One of the biggest advantages that could come out of a good system is the grouping of well-prepared cases to allow multiple field operations in one geographic area. Good logistics will save money as this program becomes bigger in the near future. JPAC has worked effectively in Southeast Asia — mainly in Vietnam — using this type of model.
MAKING THE NUMBERS
It appears that making 200 identifications annually by 2015, as mandated in the 2010 National Defense Authorization Act, is still a go. My assumption is that there are plans for exhumations to ensure that the goal is met. However, I would caution about relying too much on exhumations, because there are different schools of thought about the sanctity of these graves. But perhaps even more concerning would be the potential for exhuming remains for which there is no
DNA match. I know that families and the general public will be eager to learn the results of these recoveries. Most of us are more familiar with hand-overs or field operations. It has been my understanding that many interments consist of co-mingled remains, which can be challenging to sort out, but perhaps science has now broken through most of the barriers.
TRANSPARENCY FOR FAMILIES
Hagel also noted that the new agency would provide a single point of contact for all families. The theory is to offer easy access for learning about search and identification activities and is part of the government’s promise of transparency. With thousands of families wanting information but not being computer literate and living in different time zones, I’m not sure how this will work but we’ll soon find out.
For those of us with loved ones still unaccounted-for from the Vietnam War, there were apparently no sidebar conversations with Lumpkin or Hagel — at least that surfaced immediately — about the future of the detachments in Southeast Asia. But most reporters that cover the Pentagon would not necessarily be aware of the intricacies of recovering our loved ones from the field. However, you can bet that every Vietnam War family who has been following their loved one’s case is eager to know that the work in Southeast Asia will continue and perhaps increase. Time is running out for recovering our MIAs in that part of the world, and I hope that Lumpkin will visit Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia ASAP to see for himself. How large a role our government will play in future Vietnam War recoveries, versus the Vietnamese government, is likely to be a big issue down the road.
ADVICE FOR LUMPKIN
Obviously, the reorganization is in the early stages, and no one at this time is making any promises of when the agency expects to be fully operational. The DoD will officially own this program and be responsible for its achievements and failings and, as most of us know, there are no sacred cows in this arena. My advice to Lumpkin is that he embrace some of the long-time internal experts in DPMO and JPAC, and forget all the BS that has literally taken over the MIA program with journalists looking for the big scoop and people wanting to earn their bones — no pun intended, telling you they know the latest and greatest about historical recoveries. It is the families that need to be convinced that the new agency is not overselling and under delivering, but prepared to keep its promise. We want this new effort to work.
What do I think of the plan? Guardedly optimistic, but as Ann Mills Griffiths was quoted in an article, “the proof is in the pudding.”
Families with loved ones missing-in-action from WWII, the Korean War, Vietnam War and Cold War could soon learn of the direction that Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel plans to take the accounting community in the near future. Undergoing a huge overhaul, the community is comprised of several organizations involved with MIA operations – most of which also support our nation’s active-duty military. If all goes well, they will find themselves operating as one big happy family.
Included in the group are the Defense Prisoner of War/Missing Personnel Office (DPMO), Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command (JPAC), Armed Forces DNA Laboratory (AFDIL), Life Sciences Equipment Laboratory of the Air Force (LSEL), casualty and mortuary affairs offices of the military departments and other groups as designated by the Secretary of Defense.
Hagel has directed the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy, Michael Lumpkin, a retired Naval Officer and former SEAL Team Commander, to take all information given to him by the Military Departments, Combatant Commands and OSD to reorganize the accounting community “into a single accountable entity that has oversight of all personnel accounting resources, research, and operations across the Department.” Hagel signed the directive, Feb. 20th with a 30-day deadline, meaning that Lumpkin has until March 20th to pull it all together.
ON THE TABLE
Hagel’s directive involves the following issues: how to maximize the number of identifications; improve transparency for families; reduce duplicative functions; and how to establish a system for centralized, accessible case files for missing personnel.
Hagel also wants recommendations for changes to the civilian and military personnel policies, contracting and acquisition policies, statutory and regulatory authorities, facilities, budgets and procedures to ensure effective oversight of laboratory operations.
In my opinion the most misunderstood – yet critical component — is in the area of field operations, which fall under JPAC – the military organization that conducts investigations, excavations and recoveries around the globe. The ultimate goal is to bring home remains that will lead to identifications of MIA service members. Currently, all remains are processed at JPACs Central Identification Laboratory (CIL) at Hickam AFB in Hawaii – most are identified by the scientists at the CIL, but with advances in DNA capability and when appropriate, more and more are sent to the AFDIL at Dover AFB in Delaware for identification.
JPAC also conducts exhumations, which are expected to increase over time, especially when DPMO updates policies related to exhumed remains. In addition, JPAC facilitates the recovery of remains, handed over by foreign countries, that have been missing for decades and may belong to an American MIA. All remains are unique, as is the process of identifying them.
Many family members and government officials do not understand the nature of field operations, namely because the uniqueness factor comes into play once again. Finding and identifying historic remains is very difficult, as is making the numbers of IDs to meet new government guidelines imposed by the 2010 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA).
The NDAA included a mandate that JPACs lab produce 200 identifications annually by 2015, without paying attention to how the system works and the difficulty of executing such a broad-reaching mandate without sufficient resources across the board. The idea may have been well-meaning, but it was poorly thought out and, in some ways, led us to where we are now.
SUCCESS IN THE FIELD
What the operational teams do in the field is nothing short of amazing. Imagine conducting a recovery in an Alaskan glacier, related to a 1952 Korean War missing aircraft; or finding pieces of aircraft and life support gear 150 ft. below the waters, off the coast of Vietnam — four decades after it crashed. Contrary to what may appear in some recounts of these missions, JPAC is actively involved in the process.
Our military and experts from other countries or disciplines provide critical support for many operations, beyond boots-on-the-ground. They bring with them specially-equipped ships to look for off shore crashes, while others bring innovative equipment. There is so much that goes on behind the scenes, often not producing immediate success, but slow is not “no” in the recovery business.
We have hundreds of thousands of people who have gone missing in America, never to be found — even when the case was hot and generated a lot of hype and searches; JPAC field teams go out and find our missing service members (some from nearly a century ago), working on cold cases in some of the most horrific conditions in foreign countries, and yet we seem more interested in denouncing instead of crediting them.
It is never going to be easy to find our MIAs. No one knows the actual number of missing service members due to historic recordkeeping, particularly during the WWII era, nor do we really know how many are recoverable; however, the effort to bring home remains of our loved ones is as much a part of military lore as it is a part of our nation’s promise to help MIA families find closure.
As our nation becomes more disconnected from the military, it is obvious that stories and TV coverage about the MIA situation often lack credibility, because fewer people understand what death in combat is like — never mind historical combat. They do not know how bodies go missing on the battlefield; how aircraft from wars in different eras result in different types of crashes. And how in-country geographic conditions can vary, making it impossible to say that a piece of ground penetrating equipment that works in one area will do likewise in another.
And when field teams are armed with poorly prepared case data, as can exist in WWII cases, the results can be costly on several levels. Finding a former enemy’s remains does not lead to closure for a family back in the states, and JPAC ends up eating the cost of a very time intensive excavation.
The need for solutions oriented software may finally find its way to the accounting community — in my opinion this will be a key element in any plan.
MAKING GOOD CHOICES
Although Lumpkin has not been involved in the global MIA effort, his credentials are impressive, especially as they apply to his military career. Lumpkin spent time in Iraq, Afghanistan, Horn of Africa and the Philippines. He also held top leadership positions throughout his distinguished SEAL career.
I am confident that Lumpkin will come up with a solid, realistic plan. Where it goes from there remains to be seen.
There are so many moving parts to this huge undertaking that placing emphasis in the right area will be difficult but not impossible. Above all, we have the greatest military in the world, and with proper support and budget, they are well-positioned to take care of their own. I hope Hagel and Lumpkin agree.
We all want the same thing — to bring home our MIAs from former battlefields. It is what America does, and we don’t give up.