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Head of POW/MIA effort optimistic

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    Retired Army Lt. Gen. Michael Linnington, director of the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, last week visited the agency’s Hawaii headquarters at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam. About 500 of the agency’s research, investigation and identification personnel are based in Hono­lulu.

The new head of the Pentagon agency that recovers missing American war dead said he expects to make at least 200 identifications annually — a number that would fulfill an overdue mandate set by Congress.

Retired Army Lt. Gen. Michael Linnington, director of the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, last week visited Hawaii, where about 500 of the agency’s research, investigation and identification personnel are based.

Linnington said he would "push all of our folks." He added that the new effort "starts with research, it goes through investigation, it goes to recovery, it goes to the (identification) lab. It goes to all of it."

"I frankly think we can do many more than 200" identifications annually, Linnington said, referring not to the remainder of this fiscal year, but in the "near term."

Congress mandated in 2009 that the Pentagon have the capacity to identify up to 200 MIAs a year by fiscal 2015. But the Defense Department identified only 70 sets of remains in 2013, former Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel noted in 2014 as part of a pledge to reform an inefficient system.

The POW/MIA effort, conducted by a handful of agencies around the country, was fragmented, overlapped and hampered by interagency disputes, a July 2013 Government Accountability Office report said.

In January the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command in Hawaii — known as JPAC — was merged with the Defense POW/Missing Personnel Office in Washington, D.C., and some functions of the Air Force’s Life Sciences Equipment Laboratory in Ohio, to create the single Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency.

The lab at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam identified 87 individuals in fiscal 2014, according to an internal report. So far this fiscal year, which has 21⁄2 months left and has been dominated by reorganization and change, 42 identifications have been made, the DPAA said.

Linnington, former military deputy to the undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness, in January was named an "adviser" to the MIA effort. In June he was selected as director of the DPAA.

Linnington made an overnight stop in Hawaii last week to meet with DPAA staffers. He said he still is in the "assessment phase" following the Pentagon shake-up.

"Whenever you go through a (reorganization) and you move responsibilities from one office to another, that’s always challenging," he said in an interview.

The Pentagon announced in April that it was ordering the exhumation of 388 sailors and Marines from the USS Okla­homa who were buried as "unknowns" at Punchbowl cemetery following the Dec. 7, 1941, attacks on Pearl Harbor, so they could be identified and returned to families.

The former JPAC sought to disinter the Okla­­homa remains in 2013 to help it meet the benchmark of 200 annual identifications. The exhumations began in June and may be followed by the exhumation at Punchbowl of "unknowns" from other Pearl Harbor ships and other World War II conflicts.

Linnington also expects to have contracts or agreements in place by this time next year with private research and field organizations to help with the MIA effort. More than 83,000 Americans remain missing from past wars. Of those, between 25,000 and 35,000 are believed to be recoverable.

History Flight Inc., a Florida nonprofit, recently announced it had recovered the remains of at least three dozen Marines killed in the 1943 Tarawa battle in the Central Pacific, including 1st Lt. Alexander Bonnyman Jr., one of four recipients of the Medal of Honor from the battle.

DPAA personnel at Hickam are expected to confirm or complete the identities of the Marines.

Linnington said Tom Holland, longtime scientific director at JPAC’s lab, will now lead the Washington, D.C.-based effort of building partnerships with outside organizations and even other governments to facilitate the recovery of American MIAs.

A new $85 million DPAA lab at Hickam championed by the late U.S. Sen. Dan Ino­uye will be dedicated July 27. Hawaii, meanwhile, will become the "Asia division" of MIA efforts, including World War II, Linnington said.

How the Hawaii efforts will dovetail with other regions is still being formulated, Linnington said.

"We’re working through the specifics of that now," he said.

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