At 10:45 a.m. today retired Air Force Maj. Gen. Kelly K. McKeague was sworn in as the second director for the Defense Prisoner of War/Missing in Action Accounting Agency (DPAA) by DoD Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs Robert S. Karem, who is currently performing the duties of Under Secretary of Defense for Foreign Policy, after 16 months of inaction through two administrations.
“I am humbled and blessed to serve on behalf of the families whose loved
ones served our country,” he said. “The fulfillment of this agency’s solemn
obligation is my honor to endeavor.”
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 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. Today, there are 1,603 Americans still listed as missing in Southeast Asia (SEA) from the Vietnam War, including Laos, Cambodia and N. Vietnam.
“I know the importance of the agency’s mission and I look forward to working
with DPAA’s team of dedicated professionals,”
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 one of two 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 Lt. Gen. 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, the Senior Policy Advisor and 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 more than 40 years, characterized Linnington’s sudden departure as having set back the issue of bringing home America’s missing from SEA.
A joint February Special Forces letter articulated a major, festering internal DPAA issue McKeague will face 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, then to fund field operations to locate and recover the truly missing.”
In addition, one of the most serious consequences of such bureaucratic inaction has been the downward spiral of national and international attention given to the Vietnam War POW/MIA issue by top national leaders in our country as the new administration slowly takes command of the government while dealing with severe Congressional slowdown of most appointments. Over the last 16 months of inaction top DPAA leadership failed to bring this message to the table of President Donald J. Trump, and the secretaries of Defense and State, along with the latest White House Chief of Staff, John Kelly. Thankfully, the new administration has triggered improvements in VA coverage for veterans in several key areas. The president, Secretary of Defense James Mattis, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Kelly have given highly visible and commendable support to today’s Armed Forces.
However, much to the bitter disappointment of many veterans and families of missing Americans in Southeast Asia, during Christmas, New Year celebrations, Memorial Day, Armed Forces Day and Independence Day, none of these gentlemen, even the president, mentioned our POW/MIAs, America’s unreturned veterans. Even when the president delivered his address to The American Legion’s national convention in Reno, Nevada, the reticence on that topic – both from our Commander In Chief and The American Legion leadership, was bitterly disappointing.
That brings us back to the present appointment and why it took 16 months to get McKeague named as DPAA director. In October, knowledgeable sources told SOFREP that a replacement for Mike Linnington was selected but, before any formal announcement of that candidate’s name – another Army general – was publicly announced, that man withdrew from consideration. Privately, behind closed doors, several veteran groups were bitterly disappointed in that appointment because he was another general, like Linnington, who had little experience in the U.S. POW/MIA arena and minimal time in Southeast Asia.
McKeague on the other hand, has worked to gain the respect of veterans, families and, more importantly, earned the respect of leading government officials in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia.
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 wars and 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.”
The Joint Special Operations Association/Special Forces Association POW/MIA Committee, Vietnam Veterans of America and the National League of POW/MIA Families, were among many organizations that believe McKeague is the right person to move ahead with the vision that Hagel voiced in 2014 and that led to the formation of DPAA.
Meanwhile, time works against the remains of Americans left in Southeast Asia soil.
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 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 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 in action 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 — themissing 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, where there are still 1,603 Americans unaccounted-for;
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 directed 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, while there has been an 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 and some cite their tour with the 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.