In Hawaii, the newly formed Department of Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA) is receiving positive reviews, which in today’s political climate is rare for any federal government agency.
Recently retired Army Lt. Gen. Michael S. Linnington was sworn in as the first director of the DPAA on June 22. Under the new plan, DPAA consolidated three previous federal agencies: the Defense POW/Missing Personnel Office (DPMO), which was based in the D.C. area; the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command (JPAC) that was 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.
Linnington hit the ground running, spending several days during his first week in office at the 46th annual National League of POW/MIA Families meeting introducing himself to family members of POWs and MIAs, veterans, and key staff people while announcing that DPAA’s top priority for recovering missing remains of veterans will be in Southeast Asia (SEA), including Laos and Cambodia. This was a critical announcement for Vietnam veterans as leadership in the previous agencies were quietly drifting toward more emphasis on recovering WWII remains while deemphasizing SEA recovery missions.
Today there are 1,627 service members listed as MIA in SEA, which includes 51 Green Berets reported missing in action in Laos during the eight-year secret war, and 260 American aviators, of which more than 100 went missing and are presumed dead while flying missions in support of the secret war run under the aegis of the Military Assistance Command Vietnam–Studies and Observations Group (MACV-SOG).
Key members of the POW/MIA community have been impressed with Linnington’s first six weeks on the job. Ann Mills-Griffiths, chairman of the board of directors for the National League of POW/MIA Families said Tuesday from Hawaii, “League members and several veterans groups have been impressed with Mr. Linnington’s efforts to bring together three separate agencies into one functional operation and emphasizing the mission to locate, identify, and return home our missing-in-action personnel from Southeast Asia. And we’re impressed with the new (DPAA) deputy director.”
On Monday, Army Brig. Gen. Mark Spindler was nominated as the new deputy director of the DPAA offices in Hawaii. He will be formally appointed in the fall. “With the appointment of Brigadier General Spindler, we will have two strong leaders at the helm of this new agency, and we’re confident he’s the right man for this critical leadership position.”
Mike Taylor, chairman of the Special Operations Association’s POW/MIA Committee added, “We had a chance to meet the new director and his incoming deputy director, Brig. Gen. Mark Spindler. Both gentlemen inspire real confidence in the new leadership of DoD’s effort to achieve the fullest possible accounting for America’s missing military personnel.
“Outgoing Deputy Director, Maj. Gen. (USAF) Kelly McKeague will be missed—he has done a terrific job. I believe the new leadership team has the potential to be the best one-two combination we have ever had in this arena.”
Mills-Griffiths and Taylor attended a series of POW/MIA-related events in Hawaii that began Sunday with the return of 36 American flag-draped caskets carrying the remains of Marines killed during the WWII Battle of Tarawa. Among those 36 Marines was Medal of Honor recipient 1st Lt. Alexander Bonnyman Jr.
Those remains were turned over to DPAA officials after a “dignified transfer” at the Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam hangar. This return marked an effort for DPAA officials to work with nonprofits, such as History Flight Inc. of Florida. For several years, History Flight Inc. staff worked to locate and return WWII service members from Tarawa. They would then turn over the remains to DPAA lab technicians, who have steadily improved technologies for identification of Americans killed in action on foreign soil.
Early Monday morning, an honor guard with members from each military service escorted the remains of five Pearl Harbor service members killed in action during the Dec. 7, 1941 attack while serving aboard the USS Oklahoma. The remains were transferred from the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, commonly referred to as “The Punchbowl” during another dignified transfer ceremony. Afterward, the remains were turned over to DPAA staff who will use advances in technology and forensic science, as well as family member assistance, to provide genealogical information needed to identify the remains that had rested in graves marked “unknown” since WWII.
Linnington was quoted in the Honolulu Star-Advertiser saying, “We’re on pace. I think we will be done with the disinterments in October and then obviously the (lab) work has already started. The work will continue over the next couple of years for the full accounting of all 388 sailors and Marines.”
Later Monday morning, the DPAA hosted a blessing and dedication ceremony at the new 136,000-square-foot lab and office building, the Senator Daniel K. Inouye Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency Center of Excellence. The Maile Lei Untying Ceremony marked the grand opening for the new facility—named in honor of the Medal of Honor recipient and senator—located at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam.
Taylor said, “The new Senator Daniel K. Inouye DPAA Center of Excellence is an impressive edifice, combining functionality and beauty. The Hawaii DPAA workforce, which has long worked out of twelve disparate temporary buildings, have a wonderful new home that should both enable better work and lift their spirits.”
Taylor, who represented the SOA at all events, said, “It was a great week to be involved with the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency community in Hawaii. I hope, and believe, the hard-working staff of the accounting community has a new lease on life, and I look forward to continued SOA support of them and their pursuit of our nation’s most sacred obligation.”
Mills-Griffiths, who has been involved with the POW/MIA issue since 1966, and Taylor, a Green Beret who served in the eight-year secret war fought during the Vietnam War, are optimistic about the renewed energy and sense of mission that Linnington brings to the newly formed DPAA. They also acknowledge that merging three federal agencies into one cohesive unit is no easy task, and both have committed the support of their respective non-profits to assist in any way possible during the months ahead.
In addition, Linnington unveiled the new DPAA seal and a new motto: “Fulfilling Our Nation’s Promise.”
Last, but not least, when key Vietnam leaders conducted historic visits to the United States earlier this month, they indicated a willingness to increase cooperative efforts to recover remains of U.S. service members in SEA. Linnington and Spindler both plan trips to SEA in the months ahead, which adds to the positive upbeat in operational tempo at the new agency.
(Featured image shows Vietnam War MIA soldier buried at Arlington.)