Two Green Beret associations are frustrated that only one veteran listed as missing from the Vietnam War has been publicly announced as accounted for since June 9. They expressed bitter disappointment that a new director hasn’t been appointed to the DoD’s Defense Prisoner of War/Missing in Action Accounting Agency (DPAA) since the sudden departure of Director Michael Linnington eight months ago.
In October, knowledgeable sources told SOFREP that a replacement for Linnington was selected, but before any formal announcement of that candidate’s name—another Army general—was publicly made, that man withdrew from consideration. This further clouded the DPAA top leadership selection process for an agency formed over two years ago to bring together three separate federal organizations to improve U.S. efforts to account as fully as possible for U.S. servicemen and designated civilians still missing from the Vietnam War.
The wheels of change that led to the formation of DPAA began rolling in early 2014, when then-Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel directed the undersecretary of defense for policy to reorganize the DoD’s efforts to account for personnel missing from our nation’s past conflicts. Hagel said, “Finding, recovering, and identifying the remains of these individuals is one of our highest responsibilities, and I believed that the DoD could more effectively and transparently account for our missing personnel while ensuring their families receive timely and accurate information.”
In 2015, the DPAA was formed through the consolidation of three federal organizations: the Defense POW/Missing Personnel Office (DPMO), based in the D.C. area; the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command (JPAC) based in Hawaii, where two of three forensic laboratories are located and from which search teams are launched on missions to recover unaccounted-for Americans; and the Air Force’s Life Sciences Equipment Laboratory (LSEL) at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio. LTG Mike Linnington was the first DPAA director, appointed in June 2015 for what he announced would be a 10-year tour of duty with the fledging federal, merged agency. However, Linnington resigned last June after one year on the job, thus necessitating a search for a new director that continues today.
That resignation occurred just five days before the National League of POW/MIA Families 47th Annual Meeting, where Richard Childress, the league’s senior policy advisor, characterized Linnington as a “shooting star that appeared briefly” in the decades-long effort to bring home missing Americans. Childress, who has worked on this issue with the league and the government for more than 40 years—including eight as director for Asian affairs in Reagan’s National Security Council—added that Linnington’s “sudden departure has set the issue back once again, especially given his previous stance that this was an abiding priority for him.”
Since Linnington’s departure, the acting DPAA director is Mrs. Fern Sumpter Winbush. A recently retired Army colonel, she was hired by her former boss, Mike Linnington, on Oct. 27, 2015, to formulate policy, oversee business development, and increase outreach initiatives to achieve the agency’s goal of providing families and the nation with the “fullest possible accounting of missing personnel from past conflicts,” according to a DoD release. Today, there are more than 82,000 Americans technically considered missing and otherwise unaccounted for from Vietnam, Korea, the Cold War, and World War II, though most acknowledge that nearly half of the 73,000 unaccounted-for from WWII are unrecoverable, deep-sea losses.
Earlier this year, the only Southeast Asia recovery by DPAA was the return of Marine Corps Reserve Officer 1st Lt. William C. Ryan, the first person since June 9, 2016 announced as accounted for from the Vietnam War. He was listed as KIA/BNR (Killed in Action/Body Not Recovered) on May 11, 1969, after his Phantom F-4B jet was hit by enemy fire while on a bombing pass over Savannakhet Province, Laos. Today, there are still 1,617 U.S. personnel missing and otherwise unaccounted for from the Vietnam War, including 50 Green Berets listed as missing or killed in action while fighting in the secret war in Laos. They are among the 300 still unaccounted for in Laos, including aviators who supported the secret war.
“Although we appreciate DPAA’s efforts in the accounting mission, we are astounded at DoD’s lack of progress in appointing a new director,” said Mike Taylor, chairman of the Special Operations Association/Special Forces Association’s joint POW/MIA Committee. Taylor, who fought over five years in the secret war, added, “No doubt the selection process has been complicated by the change in administrations, but this process has taken far too long. We were told that the first person selected withdrew his application and that the DoD then did an internal search for a director within the ranks of the Senior Executive Service, but found no one. Then, we were told that the position would be posted anew in USAJOBS, but there is no evidence that this has occurred to date.
“What makes this particularly difficult to understand for both of our associations and the (National) League (of POW/MIA Families) is the fact that we have endorsed a highly qualified candidate with vast experience in this arena, a man who has proven himself with his leadership and diplomatic skills, while correcting internal dysfunctional problems he inherited and gaining the respect of family and veterans groups. Our recommendations and input regarding criteria for selection have apparently been ignored. Our associations and the league are mystified as to why this talented, dedicated candidate was not selected. On a personal level, this makes me question who doesn’t want to select a good leader and why?
“We’re trying hard to support the DPAA with Congress and the administration regarding budget requests and the need for new, dynamic leadership, but sometimes it feels as if we are trying harder than they are.”
Green Beret Cliff Newman, who served two tours of duty fighting in the secret war, has returned twice to Southeast Asia with DPAA recovery teams in unsuccessful attempts to locate the remains of two Green Berets and four helicopter crew members who died in Laos during the secret war. He pointed out an additional concern among all Vietnam veterans and families of Vietnam veterans: “Every day that is delayed going into Southeast Asia, the acidic soil there eats away at the remains of our dead service members. Naturally, we share the concerns of all families from all wars who have loved ones unaccounted for from World War II, Korea, or Vietnam, but in Southeast Asia, Vietnam veterans share a heightened sense of urgency due to the acidic soil.” Experts said it is the most acidic in the world, and that it is destroying not only the remains of our missing in action, but it’s eating away at their bones and teeth, literally destroying the evidence needed by DPAA recovery teams.
Additional confusion on this issue was sparked in 2009, when Congress mandated the Pentagon to develop the capacity and capability to identify up to 200 missing-in-action personnel by 2015—a number that officials admitted could not be met in 2015 or last year. The mandate didn’t stipulate actually recovering 200 remains, just to develop “the capacity and capability” to identify up to 200 a year.
Thus, there’s been pressure both within the ranks of the DPAA and from WWII and Korean War families to place more emphasis and resources on recovering remains of service members from those wars. They say that the DPAA will recover more remains, for example from one WWII bomber crew of 10 or 11 men, than digging in the jungles of SEA for one or two U.S. personnel.
Reflecting a division within DPAA ranks, in 2015 the Honolulu Star Advertiser newspaper quoted DPAA Deputy Director, Army Brig. Gen. Mark Spindler, saying, “Right now we’re focusing (on Southeast Asia) in the near term, even though the cost is high.” Spindler, who was appointed in September 2015, said the DPAA will develop a “campaign plan” as part of a long-term plan where “we know that we are going to shift probably in our main focus, out of Southeast Asia and into the Pacific and World War II into Europe.”
No DPAA official has publicly countered Spindler’s comment. Spindler remains on the job and there are others in DPAA leadership roles pushing for numbers over SEA recovery efforts, which further concerns Vietnam veterans.
Taylor’s response to Spindler’s unanswered comment was, “It is certainly unwelcome news to us, something we’ll minimalize, but he confirms what others at DPAA are publicly denying.”
For example, in April 2015, DoD staff said it would disinter the remains of 388 sailors and Marines who were killed aboard the USS Oklahoma during the attack on Pearl Harbor in WWII. The remains of these 388 servicemen were interred in U.S. soil at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, commonly known as the Punchbowl, though not individually identified. In 2015, the deputy secretary of defense directed disinterment of these losses and, with modern forensic sciences, larger numbers can now be identified, but will such an effort negatively impact SEA efforts?
Regardless of who is appointed, there are many major challenges awaiting the second DPAA director:
- Improving agency morale
- Lowering priority on WWII disinterments and IDs, and restoring the priority on accounting for Vietnam War missing, where there are still 1,617 Americans unaccounted for
- Improving internal agency communications
- Improving agency links with Laos and Vietnam. Cambodia has been fully cooperative for many years
- Supporting an effort to renew and restore the work of the U.S.-Russia Joint Commission on POW/MIA Affairs (USRJC)
There are more than 600 military personnel and civilians assigned to the DPAA. These resources are always subject to change based on funding and the priorities of the DPAA director, which in 2016 included:
- Field activities: with 239 civilian and military personnel who deploy on investigations/recovery missions, explosive ordnance disposal technicians, medics, field communications, and forward-based personnel
- Support and administration: 162 personnel, logisticians, policy officials, operations planners, finance specialists, and external communications staff
- Research and analysis: 113 personnel including historians, analysts, researchers, and archivists
- Forensics: 88 people including anthropologists, archaeologists, odontologists, lab and evidence technicians, and a medical examiner
Besides the director’s position, there are more than two dozen skilled positions in the new agency that have not been filled. There has also been an effort to discourage retaining skilled, long-term civilian positions, dedicated people bringing historic knowledge and political insights, and to instead replace them with military personnel—men and women who spend two to three years at the agency, get their career ticket punched for a joint assignment, then move on. Some care more about career advancement than recovering America’s unreturned veterans, though most are genuinely motivated and some cite their tour with the accounting mission as the most meaningful of their entire military career.
In addition to these issues, the Feb. 10 edition of the National League of POW/MIA Families newsletter “update” pointed out several slowdowns in Vietnam War accounting missions, at a time when SEA political leaders are more willing than ever to work with the U.S. on this humanitarian issue:
- A joint field recovery mission in Cambodia was cancelled, the only one scheduled for 2017, before it was rescheduled in March. But, due to funding issues, the reduced scope of the planned recovery mission’s in-country time has been dropped from 60 to 30 days.
- “The unwelcome Cambodia-related news led to a further discovery that, also due to a funding shortage, the DPAA had drastically cut the Vietnam JFA (Joint Field Activity) due to begin in February. The JFA in Laos was also postponed by three weeks due to an aircraft breakdown and delay,” the update stated.
- Additionally, the newsletter said DPAA budget requirements will not permit the funding in fiscal year 2017 needed to “increase the pace and scope of operations as has repeatedly been requested by Vietnam…DPAA has not yet provided clarification on any of the budget-related questions, but the full explanation should be provided without further obfuscation.”
Last, but not least, the update reiterated a key point that Taylor made regarding the search for a new director: “The selection official, then-acting Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Brian KcKeon, apparently didn’t share our sense of urgency to replace retired Army LTG Mike Linnington. Hopefully, this means that the Trump administration will carefully consider recommendations provided by the league, Special Operations Association, Special Forces Association, and others. Up to now, there has been no indication that serious qualifications—experience, character, commitment, and dedication to the mission—were given any consideration, nor crucial factors such as having earned the trust and respect of affected families, veterans, and foreign officials whose willingness to authorize necessary cooperation is critical to success.”
Image courtesy of DoD