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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.

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MIA IN VIETNAM: FOCUS ON THE FUTURE

Sunday, July 29, 2012 @ 06:07 PM  posted by Elaine Zimmer Davis

 

Peter Verga is the Chief of Staff and Senior Career Official for the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy, and his many responsibilities include missing persons and prisoners of war issues. When Verga speaks, the audience listens.

 CAN THE NDAA MANDATE BE A GOOD THING?

Each time I attend the annual meeting of the National League of POW/MIA Families in Washington, D.C., as in June 2012, I look forward to the sessions with the leaders in the accounting community talking about their respective organization’s accomplishments, challenges and future direction.  This year I felt that speakers were trying to put a positive spin on a very shaky situation – not to be dishonest, but to leave room for a little hope, and I think they did a good job.

Yet no one was under the illusion that MIA Recovery operations, especially in Southeast Asia, would escape the negative effects of our tough economy, particularly the anticipated hits aimed at the Department of Defense (DoD) budget. But ironically the elephant in the room for most of us remained the indubitable 2010 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) that imposed a big burden on JPACs Central Identification Laboratory (CIL), with a mandate to double the number of MIA identifications to 200 per year by 2015, with contributions from WWII, Korean War, Vietnam War, Cold War, and others, as necessary.

So What’s the Big Deal?

For starters, the mandate is a number crunching approach that does not take into account all the variables within the accounting community. When DPMO contracted with the Defense Institute for Defense Analyses in 2009 for an assessment of increasing the CILs identification rates, the end was expected to justify the means.  With several caveats, the report noted that the lab could increase identifications to 180 MIAs per year, which was a big number in itself; however, the mandate specified 200 IDs per year – obviously, thinking that rounding out the number sounded better and perhaps the 20 additional identifications could easily be achieved from a couple of WWII B-17s or B-24s, each of which carried 10+ person crews. Easier said than done!

If there were people in the DoD community who felt that the lab was falling short on its commitment to identify MIAs, the report put that notion to rest, demonstrating that perception is different from reality. Consequently, the lab has finally BEGUN receiving some much needed funds – at least this year – to help build the capacity to meet the demands imposed by the mandate.

Accounting Community Owns It

Clearly, the 2010 NDAA mandate was an outgrowth of the 2009 feasibility study, and now DPMO owns it, as do all the other groups within the accounting community. And with the 2015 due date looming large, everyone is working overtime to ensure its success. Although there was little focus on the mandate during the recent meeting, I paid attention to Peter Verga – not just because he is a smart, nice guy, but more because his message involved the mandate. Verga is the Chief of Staff and Senior Career Official for the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy and among his responsibilities are missing persons and prisoners of war issues. Verga told officials and families that the accounting community has not been idle but rather “…looking at every aspect of the DoD accounting mission in order to achieve this mandate as we work to develop our DoD accounting strategy.”

The countdown has begun to reinvent the accounting process, and the DoD has a huge job ahead.  And while budget is not the only concern, it is the biggest and here’s why.  The worst case scenario:  Without adequate funding, field operations will focus primarily on taking the path of least resistance to WWII recoveries, leaving Southeast Asia on a maintenance-type schedule.  Undoubtedly, the blowback from Vietnam veterans and families would be huge, so I think the DoD is shooting for the best case scenario:  To create solutions that will allow them to continue the accounting mission in all past wartime areas.  (NOTE:  Korean War MIAs remain a priority, and JPAC continues to identify their remains from storage and exhumations  and awaits word of when teams can return to North Korea.)

 Fire in the Belly Needed

The Vietnam Recovery Teams (VRTs) are working and proving cost effective, so JPAC is trying to see if this concept could work in other past wartime areas, too.  Hopefully, JPAC will be able to recruit some much-needed expertise from our military reductions in Afghanistan, such as medics, EOD specialists, mountaineers and linguists to augment the VRTs, and eventually to do the same elsewhere, for something like Pacific Recovery Teams (PRTs).  

It will be in everyone’s best interest, including families, to help make the mandate work to serve all our MIAs from past wars.  Now is the time for creative thinking and doable solutions.

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