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Bumbling mars effort to tally, ID missing GIs

The isle entity responsible for finding and analyzing the remains of Americans comes under harsh criticism

By Robert Burns

Associated Press


WASHINGTON » The Pentagon's Hawaii-based effort to account for tens of thousands of Americans missing in action from foreign wars is so inept, mismanaged and wasteful that it risks descending from "dysfunction to total failure," according to an internal study suppressed by military officials.

Largely beyond the public spotlight, the decades-old pursuit of bones and other MIA evidence is sluggish, often duplicative and subjected to too little scientific rigor, the report says.

The Associated Press obtained a copy of the internal study after Freedom of Information Act requests for it by others were denied.

The report paints a picture of a Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command, a military-run group known as JPAC and headed by a two-star general, as woefully inept and even corrupt. The command is digging up too few clues on former battlefields, relying on inaccurate databases and engaging in expensive "boondoggles" in Europe, the study concludes.

In North Korea, JPAC was snookered into digging up remains between 1996 and 2000 that the North Koreans apparently had taken out of storage and planted in former American fighting positions, the report said. Washington paid the North Koreans hundreds of thousands of dollars to "support" these excavations.

Some recovered bones had been drilled or cut, suggesting they had been used by the North Koreans to make a lab skeleton. Some of those remains have since been identified, but their compromised condition added time and expense and "cast doubt over all of the evidence recovered" in North Korea, the study said. This practice of "salting" recovery sites was confirmed to the AP by one U.S. participant.


>> The Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command is finding too few investigative leads to come even close to achieving Congress’ demand for a minimum 200 identifications per year by 2015.
>> Of the 80 identifications that JPAC’s Central Identification Laboratory made in 2012, only 35 were derived from remains recovered by JPAC. The other 45 were handed over by other governments or were disinterred from a U.S. military cemetery.
>> Some teams are sent into the field, particularly in Europe, on what amount to boondoggles — “paid for by public funds that are ultimately unnecessary, excessive, inefficient or unproductive.” Some refer to this as “military tourism.”
>> JPAC’s main database is incomplete and “riddled with unreliable data.”
>> “Sketch maps” used by teams looking for remains are “chronically unreliable,” leaving the teams “cartographically blind.”

JPAC'sleaders authorized the study of its inner workings, but the then-commanding general, Army Maj. Gen. Stephen Tom, disavowed it and suppressed the findings when they were presented by the researcher last year. Now retired, Tom banned its use "for any purpose," saying the probe went beyond its intended scope. His deputy concurred, calling it a "raw, uncensored draft containing some contentious material."

The AP obtained two internal memos describing the decision to bury the report. The memos raised no factual objections, but said the command would not consider any of the report's findings or recommendations.

The failings cited by the report reflect one aspect of a broader challenge to achieving a uniquely American mission: accounting for the estimated 83,348 service members still listed as missing from World War II, Korea and Vietnam.

This is about more than tidying up the historical record. It is about fulfilling a promise to the mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, and sons and daughters of the missing. Daughters like Shelia Reese, 62, of Chapel Hill, N.C., who still yearns for the father she never met, the young soldier who went to war and never returned.

She was 2 months old when heartbreaking word landed at her grandmother's door a week before Christmas 1950 that Pfc. Kenneth F. Reese, a 19-year-old artilleryman, was missing in action in North Korea. To this day the military can't tell her whether he was killed in action or whether he died in captivity. His body has never been found.

"It changed my whole life," she says. "I've missed this man my whole life."

She's not alone.

Reese is among 7,910 unaccounted for from Korea, down from 8,200 when the war ended 60 years ago this month.

A sense of emptiness and unanswered questions haunted many families of the missing throughout the second half of the 20th century, when science and circumstance did not permit the almost exact accounting for the dead and the missing that has been achieved in Iraq and Af­ghani­stan. While the government's efforts have provided closure for hundreds of families of the missing in recent years, many others are still waiting.

Over time the obscure government bureaucracies in charge of the accounting task have largely managed to escape close public scrutiny despite clashing with a growing number of advocacy groups and individuals such as Frank Meter­sky, a Korean War veteran who has spent decades pressing for a more aggressive and effective U.S. effort.

The outlook for improvement at the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command, he says, is not encouraging.

"Today it's worse than ever," he says.

People disagree on the extent of the problem. But even the current JPAC commander, Air Force Maj. Gen. Kelly McKeague, says he would not dispute those who say his organization is dysfunctional.

"I'd say you're right, and we're doing something about it," McKeague said in a telephone interview last week from his headquarters at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam. He said changes, possibly to include consolidating the accounting bureaucracy and putting its management under the Joint Chiefs of Staff in Washington, are under consideration.

The internal report by Paul M. Cole was never meant to be made public. It is unsparing in its criticisms.

Absent prompt and significant change, "the descent from dysfunction to total failure … is inevitable," Cole concluded.

He directed most of his criticism at the field operations that collect bones and other material, as opposed to the laboratory scientists at JPAC who use that material to identify the remains. Cole is a management consultant and recognized research expert in the field of accounting for war remains; he still works at JPAC.

More broadly, the government organizations responsible for the accounting mission, including the Pentagon's Defense Prisoner of War/Missing Personnel Office, which is in charge of policy, have sometimes complicated their task by making public statements that their critics view as disingenuous or erroneous.

The head of the office, for example, retired Army Maj. Gen. W. Montague Winfield, said last month at a public forum that the U.S. government has "no evidence" that U.S. servicemen taken prisoner in North Korea during the 1950-53 war were later moved to the former Soviet Union against their will and never returned.

Washington made a detailed case in writing to Moscow in 1993 that such transfers did happen, and the AP has obtained a videotape produced by U.S. officials and given to the Rus­sians at the same time to support the U.S. case.

The tape, which has never before been made public, was provided to the AP by a former government official who was not authorized to release it. It says that based on interviews and other research, U.S. investigators believe "tens if not hundreds" of American POWs were transferred to the territory of the former Soviet Union.

"Certainly we understand that these operations were never meant to see the light of day," the film says.

The Russian government has repeatedly denied receiving POWs from Korea.

Mark Sauter, a private researcher and co-author with John Zimmerlee of "American Trophies and Washington's Cynical Attitude," an e-book about POWs to be published this month, found in government archives a U.S. intelligence report from August 1955, two years after the war, calling for a bigger intelligence effort to learn about such POW transfers.

"Continued and numerous fragmentary intelligence reports give credence to possible detention of a large number of American POWs in China, Manchuria, USSR and North Korea," it said. It cited one "significant report" describing "a large number of U.S. POWs being shipped into USSR by rail" from northeastern China.

Accounting for the nation's war dead has been a politically charged issue for decades. The debate is not about the practicality of the mission, which some might question, but how it should be pursued.

Sometimes overlooked amid the squabbling is the emotional toll on the families of the missing. They are often bewildered by the bureaucracy and left to watch hope wear away with the passage of time.

In 1975, more than two decades after Pfc. Kenneth F. Reese was declared missing in Korea, his widow, Chris Tench, who had by then remarried, described her feelings in her local newspaper, the Gastonia (N.C.) Gazette.

She wrote of initially being relieved to learn that Reese was missing, not dead. He might turn up alive, she recalled thinking. Later she thought differently.

"No, missing isn't dead," she wrote. "It's worse than dead."

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LMO wrote:
The military suppressing, lieing, and covering up? What a shock!
on July 8,2013 | 02:16AM
HD36 wrote:
Let's find those who died in the revolutionary war.
on July 8,2013 | 09:01PM
allie wrote:
Why was this expensive project allowed to go on for so long with no results? Hundreds of millions of dollars down the drain.
on July 8,2013 | 06:43AM
soundofreason wrote:
Well, it's Hawaii, so..........yeah.
on July 8,2013 | 07:32AM
AhiPoke wrote:
It's never a surprise when a government program fails to meet its objective. It's usually the norm. The bottom line is, when there's no accountibility there's no performance.
on July 8,2013 | 08:22AM
FrankieT wrote:
On another subject, ever tried to find a name at National Cemetery of the Pacific (Punch Bowl) well, many times the records are so messed up. I know the person is buried there but the computer says no record. This has happened three times when I tried to find names in November 2012. The only way I found the names was to have friends tell me where the person was buried or interned.
on July 8,2013 | 09:42AM
Slow wrote:
The national shame over how we treat our veterans continues.
on July 8,2013 | 12:14PM
FWS wrote:
What nonsense! The basic facts of this poorly written article are that; the field work isn’t being conducted scientifically, North Korea lies to us to get money, and the JPAC organization is dysfunctional. News flash…the wars were not fought scientifically, North Korea lies about everything, and all joint operations are dysfunctional. The Air Force could run it efficiently, but not surprisingly they might focus on recovering flyers. Sending a team of a dozen young military members into the middle of a jungle (or a European forest) to recover someone’s lost relative is time consuming, very expensive, and comes with no guarantee of success. Hence, no one else is doing it. The rest of the article is nonsense. JPAC is not part of a conspiracy that ignores some “e-book” author’s unsubstantiated theories. Robert Burns was obviously just trying to slip in his own agenda.
on July 8,2013 | 01:46PM
retire wrote:
Apparently, we can't even lose wars well.
on July 8,2013 | 02:10PM
Danno808 wrote:
This story is another great example of the type of poor journalism, devoid of any attempt at balance or even facts, that make me wonder why I even read or watch the news. Not only that, it is a great disservice to the military and civilian members of JPAC whom I have personally witnessed spend 10-12 hours days working their butts off in the worst conditions imaginable to bring closure to the families of our missing. I worked at JPAC for over two years, from 2007-2010, and unless things have completely changed (which I doubt), this story is complete bunk. As the commander of all the field recovery teams, I visited sites all over the world, and I would describe none of them as "military tourism." I have seen teams roped to trees on the side of a mountain work non-stop through torrential downpours in Papua New Guinea, move and screen tons of dirt looking for remains or evidence in 100 degree heat in Vietnam and Cambodia, and dive continuously in a river in Korea where you couldn't see your hand in front of your face looking for a missing pilot. Yes, the missions to Europe were considered more "civilized", but anyone who has visited there lately knows that most of the land there is either owned privately or by the government, and you're not able to just throw down a base camp and start digging. So the teams stayed in small hotels or guest houses, and drove to the work sites each day. But they still worked just as hard as anywhere else, and most of the time found remains or physical evidence that helped to resolve a case in the missions that I remember. I would love to see a follow up done on this story, where someone clearly explains the allegations and lays out the facts and corroborrating evidence. If JPAC has truly slipped that far in the three years since I left, then let them be held accountable. But printing such a sensationalist piece of crap without laying out the evidence is not fair to the dedicated professionals that I know have worked so hard to bring these men home, and only causes more anguish to the families who have waited so long for closure. While I would expect this kind of shoddy journalism in D.C., I would have hoped the Star Advertiser would have actually read the piece and asked a few more hard questions before throwing it on the front page.
on July 8,2013 | 02:46PM
allie wrote:
good points
on July 8,2013 | 04:27PM
kuroiwaj wrote:
Danno808, I also have had positive experiences with JPAC. And, you worked there. It's a thankless but yet a very satisfying job to locate and identify MIA's. I wonder, if Mr. Robert Burns interviewed Dr. Paul M. Cole on his report? Also, why would Mr. Burns submit this kind of journalism crap on paper. I know that all my men in my command are accounted for. I couldn't keep my promise to a few to have them all go home alive. To have an organization as JPAC is a blessing as they continue their work, it's all American. I guess it's us veterans who truly appreciate their work.
on July 8,2013 | 05:17PM
DAGR81 wrote:
Where the heck is barry?
on July 8,2013 | 04:14PM
HD36 wrote:
Let's spend billions more looking for lost bones of those who fought in : The Revolutionary War; The Mexican - American War; The Civil War; The Spanish-American War and World War !. We could then spend millions tracking down their relatives and providing burieal services. This will stimulate the economy as some would say.
on July 8,2013 | 07:48PM
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