Continued concern by Vietnam veteran groups about missing Americans from that war continue as the government office responsible for that mission, DoD’s Defense Prisoner of War/Missing in Action Accounting Agency (DPAA) has been without a director for 12 of its 23 months in existence since the departure of its first Director Michael Linnington in June. The concern mounts as the lack of visible progress to appoint a director continues despite formal written requests by several veterans groups to urge action on the vacated post.

In October, SOFREP learned that the replacement for Linnington had been selected but, before any formal announcement of that candidate’s name – another Army general – was publicly announced, he withdrew from consideration. This further clouded the DPAA top leadership selection process for an agency formed only 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.

Without a strong DPAA director to bring the issue before Congressional and public attention, the Vietnam War accounting operations have been reduced instead of increasing at the pace and scope of operations as requested by Vietnam veterans. In February SOFREP reported that two Green Beret associations and the National League of POW/MIA Families were frustrated with the low number of returned remains of Americans listed as still missing and otherwise unaccounted for from the Vietnam War – a failure exacerbated by a $20 million reduction in DPAA’s Fiscal Year 2017 budget of $132 million. The VVA (Vietnam Veterans of America) has joined them in requesting a renewed emphasis being placed on appointing a director.

That bitter frustration continues to grow with the members of the Special Forces Association, which has more than 10,000 members, and the Special Operations Association, which has more than 2,000 members, according to Michael Taylor, chairman of the joint SFA/SOA POW/MIA Committee.

The leadership of the SFA and the SOA were encouraged by the appointment of SecDef Mattis,” said Taylor. “We considered him a man of action and sent him a letter outlining our concerns with the accounting mission, especially DPAA’s budget and the appointment of a new director. In response, we received a letter from Acting Undersecretary of Defense (Policy) Theresa Whalen the selecting official who has been unable to fill the Director’s billet for eleven months. She merely reiterated the situation and conditions about which we were already well aware. She made no mention of the recommended emphasis on future actions we had urged for SecDef Mattis. We continue to have confidence in the workers of DPAA, but remain disappointed in their leadership and support at the highest levels of DoD.”

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 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 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 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. Linnington was the first DPAA director appointed in June 2015. He said he would serve a 10-year tour of duty with the fledging federal, merged agency. However, Linnington resigned in June 2016 after one year on the job, thus triggering a search for a new director that continues today – slowly.

Since Linnington’s departure, the acting DPAA director is Mrs. Fern Sumpter Winbush. A retired Army colonel, she was hired by her former boss 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 categorized as missing and otherwise unaccounted for from the Vietnam and Korean Wars, 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.

Taylor, who fought over five years in the secret war during the Vietnam War added, “Although we appreciate DPAA’s efforts in the accounting mission, we are astounded at DoD’s lack of progress in appointing a new Director….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. We remain 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?

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 deadly eight-year 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 (SEA), the acidic soil 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 some higher ranks of 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 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.

Confirming that 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.”

Regardless of who is appointed, there are many major challenges awaiting the second DPAA Director:

Search narrowed for new Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency director

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  • Improving agency morale;
  • Lowering priority on WWII disinterments and IDs, and restoring the priority on accounting for Vietnam War missing, where there are still 1,611 Americans unaccounted-for;
  • Improving internal agency communications;
  • Improving agency links with Laos as Vietnam and Cambodia have been fully cooperative in recent years.
  • And, 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 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 posts in the new agency that have not been filled, while there has been an effort to discourage retaining skilled, long-term civilian positions filled with dedicated people bringing historic knowledge and political insights to the 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 caring more about career advancement more than recovering unreturned American remains.

In addition to these issues, the May 26 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.
  • Due to budget cuts …”the reduction in field operations was a serious blow to confidence in DPAA’s commitment to pursue Vietnam War accounting as a continuing priority. Now, due to inadequate funding, the damage is increasing clear.”

Editorial cartoon courtesy of Robert L. Lang