The DoD will announce the name of a new director for the Defense Prisoner of War/Missing in Action Accounting Agency (DPAA) Tuesday after 16 months of inaction through two administrations and some in-house machinations, SOFREP has learned. Today, there are 1,603 Americans still listed as missing in Southeast Asia (SEA) from the Vietnam War, including Laos, Cambodia and N. Vietnam.
Reliable sources have told SOFREP that the candidate most likely to be named is retired Air Force Maj. Gen. Kelly K. McKeague, who was endorsed earlier this year for DPAA director by the Joint Special Operations Association/Special Forces Association POW/MIA Committee and the National League of POW/MIA Families. McKeague was the commander of Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command (JPAC) based at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Hawaii from 2012 until DPAA was formed in 2015, and JPAC colors were cased in 2016. JPAC was one of three federal agencies merged into the DPAA.
In a February 27 letter to Mattis, the Joint Special Operations Association/Special Forces Association POW/MIA Committee endorsed McKeague because he served “with great distinction” as JPAC commander and “corrected many systemic problems he inherited and earned the respect and support of POW/MIA families and veteran service organizations.”
In that letter, the two Green Beret veteran organizations noted that McKeague had been endorsed by them and the League earlier in the selection process, and that McKeague “should have been selected and on duty long ago.” As a result, “The lack of a new director and the failure to take advantage of opportunities to increase the pace and scope of operations can only raise doubts among host nation partners about America’s commitment to the mission. The USG is sending absolutely the wrong message to counterparts in foreign governments.” The joint letter said its request to name a director was “urgent.”
This is the latest chapter in the fledging DPAA since the consolidation of three federal organizations to form it: 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. Army LTG Mike Linnington was the first DPAA director appointed in June 2015. He resigned after less than one year.
That resignation occurred just five days before the National League of POW/MIA Families 47th Annual Meeting in June 2016 where Richard Childress, Director of Asian Affairs for the National Security Council during the Reagan administration from 1981-89, characterized Linnington as a “shooting star that appeared briefly” in the POW/MIA-decades-long effort to bring home missing Americans. Childress – a Vietnam veteran who has worked on this issue with the National League of POW/MIA Families and the government for nearly 40 years, characterized Linnington’s sudden departure as having set back the issue of bringing home America’s missing from SEA.
The joint February Special Forces letter also articulated a major, festering internal DPAA issue where “Congress has directed DPAA to develop the capability and capacity to accomplish 200 identifications of American remains per year. Some in DPAA purposefully or inadvertently misinterpret the intent of Congress to mean that they must identify 200 annually, starting now.” The letter described how some upper management DPAA personnel have adopted a strategy to disinter commingled remains of known dead from previous wars, many buried as unknowns in US-controlled cemeteries. Then in an effort to get higher numbers, they “use new DNA techniques to identify personnel who are not truly missing. It is much cheaper, faster and easier to rack up ID numbers this way, than to fund field operations to locate and recover the truly missing.”
In his annual address during the June National League of POW/MIA Families 48th Annual Meeting, Childress said, The 200 IDs figure was arbitrary, unrealistic and counterproductive to pursuing answers based on realities of the differences in the wars, versus strictly data-driven forensic and science-based operations. Seemingly, no one in decision-making policy positions had either the comprehension or interest in challenging this distortion.”
Childress then pointed out that the November 2013 policy guidance for FY 2015-19 “stipulated that the majority of recoveries and identifications were to come from field operations, not disinterment,…The stated goal was to complete recovery operations at identified sites in Cambodia no later than FY2016, Vietnam by FY2019 and Laos by FY2021.
“In addition, a robust and dedicated investigative effort increase in each country was to be maintained, along with increasing the scope and depth of research and analysis to create viable field leads.”
Again, even a casual observer can see these noble sentiments have not been met and, instead, have actually regressed in several instances. By October 2015, DPAA Strategic Instructions provided for additional focus on disinterment, an updated policy on “unknowns” interred, and noted that disinterment would now be a mission priority.”
Reflecting that division within DPAA ranks, in 2015 the Honolulu Star Advertiser newspaper quoted DPAA Deputy Director, Army BG Mark Spindler, saying, “Right now we’re focusing (on Southeast Asia) in the near term, even though the cost is high.” Spindler, appointed in September 2015, said in the 2015 story that 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, who retires later this year, and others in DPAA leadership roles continue to push for numbers, over SEA recovery efforts, which further concerns Vietnam veterans.
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 servicemen… 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 and family members share a heightened sense of urgency due to the acidic soil and the death of first-hand witnesses.” Experts said it is the most acidic in the world and that it is destroying not only the remains of our missing but it’s eating away at their bones and teeth, literally destroying the evidence needed by DPAA, anthropologists and DNA specialists.
Newman, a highly decorated Green Beret noted that among the remaining 1,603 Americans listed as missing and unaccounted for in SEA, there are 50 Green Berets who fought in the deadly secret war waged in Laos alone. Also included in those 1,603 missing Americans are approximately 294 aviators, of which 103 died supporting the Green Berets in Laos during the secret war that ran from 1964-1972
Among other challenges awaiting the new director are:
Improving agency morale;
Lowering priority on WWII disinterments and IDs, and restoring the priority on accounting for Vietnam War missing;
Improving internal agency communications;
Improving agency links with Laos. Vietnam and Cambodia have been increasingly cooperative for many years, while the U.S. has failed to meet those positive developments with a serious, matching commitment of assets and funding, as stated in earlier Congressional directives, due to budget cuts and management issues.
And, supporting an effort to renew and restore the work of the U.S.-Russia Joint Commission on POW/MIA Affairs (USRJC).
Besides the director’s position, there are more than two dozen skilled posts in the new agency that have not been filled. There has been a management effort to discourage retaining skilled, long-term civilian positions, with dedicated people bringing historic knowledge and political insights to this heart-felt mission, and to replace them with military personnel – men and women who spend two-three years at the agency, get their career ticket punched for a joint assignment, before moving on. Some care more about career advancement than recovering America’s unreturned veterans, though most are genuinely motivated, even citing their tour with the POW/MIA accounting mission as the most meaningful of their entire military career.
Editor’s note: In the weeks ahead, SOFREP will be posting stories on some of the many challenges awaiting the new DPAA director.
Featured image courtesy of author.