Secretary of Defense Ash Carter announced on Friday, June 19th the Department of Defense Executive Service appointment of Lt. Gen. Michael S. Linnington as director of the newly formed Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA). Linnington, a 33-year Army veteran, previously served as the military deputy to the undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness in Washington, D.C.
Under the new plan, DPAA will consolidate three previous federal operations: the Defense POW/Missing Personnel Office (DPMO), which was based in the D.C. area; the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command (JPAC), based in Hawaii where the forensic laboratories are located and where the search teams are launched for missions to recover unaccounted-for American remains; and the Air Force’s Life Sciences Equipment Laboratory at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio.
On January 30, the JPAC colors were cased during a formal ceremony in Hawaii, after which the DPAA was formally activated. Rear Adm. Mike Franken is the interim commander until Linnington is sworn in Monday as the new DPAA director. Air Force Maj. Gen. Kelly McKeague, the former JPAC commander, remains as the interim deputy director.
Through 2015, the headquarters for the new agency will be in Washington, D.C., but it will also operate from its Hawaii location, with satellite laboratories in Nebraska and Ohio. A decision on the agency’s permanent location will be made by early next year, DoD officials said.
Reaction to the announcement was positive from both the POW/MIA community and many veterans organizations. “In my view, he is the right man in the right job,” said Ann Mills-Griffiths, chairman of the Board of Directors for the National League of POW/MIA Families, based in Washington, D.C.
“He has the character, humility, principles and dedication to serving our nation and this mission that will earn the respect and trust of the official accounting community workforce and the POW/MIA families,” she added. “I believe we finally may have the leader long sought, a person who is committed to the longer term and truly welcomes the challenges and is determined to succeed in achieving our shared objectives.”
Special Operations Association President Rick Estes echoed Mills-Griffith’s comments. The SOA is a veterans group composed of Green Berets, SEALs, and Force Reconnaissance men who fought in the secret war in Vietnam, conducted in Laos, Cambodia, and North Vietnam under the aegis of the Military Assistance Command Vietnam – Studies and Observations Group (MACV-SOG), as well as the airmen who supported the cross-border missions.
“We’re happy to have a respected officer such as Lt. Gen. Linnington’s appointed to this critical position,” Estes said. “Once he gets settled in as director, I hope we will have an assurance that efforts to return the remains of 50-plus Green Berets listed as missing in action in Laos alone, plus the more than 250 American airmen who served valiantly in that war, will be properly accounted for and returned to the United States for closure.”
Today, DPAA lists 1,627 Vietnam War veterans listed as MIA, which includes special operations soldiers and airmen in North Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia.
The annual accounted-for number has become a controversial issue both internally and with outside groups, as there are more than 83,000 Americans still listed as unaccounted for or otherwise missing in action from prior conflicts, including World War II, the Korean War, and Vietnam.
Of those, people familiar with the POW/MIA issue estimate that between 25,000 to 32,000 service members from previous wars can still be recovered, as approximately 51,000 are listed as over-water missing in action—both Navy personnel from ships and all aviation losses over water since WWII.
In addition to merging three separate agencies, Linnington has many challenges to address when he assumes command of DPAA. In 2009, Congress mandated the Pentagon to develop the capacity and capability to be able to identify up to 200 missing-in-action service members per year by 2015—a number that officials have admitted cannot be met this year.
Since that Congressional mandate was written, there has been a lot of pressure to increase the number of missing personnel identified and recovered annually. Thus there has been a tendency to work on cases from WWII and Korea, where individual sites will have more remains, thus increasing the number of service members identified on foreign soil as well as recovering more service members’ remains while deemphasizing Southeast Asia recovery efforts.
Stars and Stripes reported earlier this year that the DoD had received criticism for only accounting for about 72 remains annually, while upsetting surviving families through a lack of communications with them.
In addition, there have been allegations of widespread mismanagement and botched recovery efforts. For example, earlier this month, a Green Beret who served with SOG during the secret war in Vietnam recently returned to Southeast Asia for the second time to attempt to locate the remains of two Green Berets and the air crew of a helicopter that attempted to rescue the small reconnaissance team in February 1971.
Although exact details are not available, initial reports indicated that indigenous personnel prepared a landing zone too far away from the actual site where the six American remains were last seen in 1971.
Last, but not least, Linnington will also have to address serious morale issues, according to one former DPMO employee who asked not to be named.
Linnington, a Cape May, New Jersey native, graduated from the U.S. Military Academy in 1980 and was commissioned an infantry officer. His civilian education includes a BS from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York and a MS in applied mathematics from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York. His military education includes the Infantry Officer’s Basic and Advanced Courses at Ft. Benning, Georgia, U.S. Army Command and General Staff College at Ft. Leavenworth, Kansas, and the National War College in Washington, D.C., where he earned a masters degree in national security strategy.
His key command and staff positions include time at Ft. Ord, California; Ft. Riley, Kansas; West Berlin (divided), Germany; multiple assignments at Ft. Campbell, Kentucky; the Republic of Korea, and several tours in Washington, D.C. (Army and Joint Staffs).
From June ’02 to June ’04, then Col. Linnington commanded the 3d BCT, 101st Airborne Division (AASLT), where he deployed both in OEF 1 (Afghanistan) and OIF 1 (Iraq).
After selection to Flag Rank, Linnington held positions at Ft. Benning, Georgia (DCG), West Point, New York (Cmdt of Cdts), Kabul, Afghanistan (ISAF Joint Command), and in Washington, D.C. (Cdr, U.S. Army Military District of Washington). LTG Linnington assumed the duties as military deputy to the under secretary of defense (personnel and readiness) in Jul ’13.
(Featured image: On January 30, there were two ceremonies held, one by the JPAC in Hawaii and the other by the DPMO in Washington, D.C., where those agencies were formally terminated and merged into the new DoD Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA). Here, Air Force Maj. Gen. Kelly McKeague rolls up the JPAC flag prior to casing it, ending its operational status before DPAA was formally activated. Green Berets from the Special Operations Association and the Special Forces Association were in attendance for this formal proceeding. Photo courtesy of Mike Taylor.)