The Defense Department is close to naming the first director of the newly formed Defense Prisoner of War/Missing in Action Accounting Agency (DPAA), SOFREP has learned. In recent weeks, reliable sources have indicated that the field of candidates has been narrowed down to three people.

The wheels of change that lead to the formation of DPAA began in early 2014, when Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel directed the undersecretary of defense for policy to provide recommendations for reorganizing the DoD’s efforts to account for missing personnel in 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.”

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) that is 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, a former Navy legislative director, was appointed the interim commander until the new DPAA director is named. Air Force Maj. Gen. Kelly McKeague, the former JPAC commander, was named 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.

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.

McKeague, who is highly respected since arriving in Hawaii to direct JPAC, said he hopes to increase the number of annual recoveries to about 125 by 2018.

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.

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 by 2015—a number that officials have admitted cannot be met this year.

Of those, people familiar with the issue estimate that between 25,000 to 35,000 service members from previous wars can still be recovered.

Stars and Stripes reported earlier this year that the remains of 107 unaccounted-for troops were identified during 2014 by JPAC teams, with 42 from the Korean War, 36 from WWII, 17 from a 1952 Air Force cargo plane crash in Alaska, and 12 from the Vietnam War. To date, in 2015, the remains of 39 service members have been located and returned to the U.S.: 26 from the Korean War, seven from World War II, and four from the Vietnam War.

Today, the remains of 51 Green Berets and approximately 250 airmen who were lost in Laos during the eight-year secret war during the Vietnam War remain missing in action.

And, with the DoD announcement in April to disinter 388 unaccounted-for sailors and Marines associated with the USS Oklahoma from WWII, there is a concern from some Vietnam veterans that recovery efforts in Southeast Asia will receive less emphasis, said Rick Estes. He is president of the Special Operations Association, a veterans group composed of Green Berets who fought in the secret war conducted in Laos, Cambodia, and North Vietnam under the aegis of the Military Assistance Command Vietnam – Studies and Observations Group (MACV-SOG), and the airmen who supported the cross-border missions.

Search narrowed for new Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency director

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“I fully understand the concerns of World War II family members about the identification of remains of their loved ones,” Estes said, “and I respect those concerns. But, in Southeast Asia, in Laos specifically, we still have 50-plus Green Berets listed as missing in action plus more than 250 American airmen who served valiantly in that war.

“But, our veterans have mother nature working against them, as we have learned that the soil in Southeast Asia is the most acidic in the world, thus it destroys the service members’ remains at a higher rate of deterioration than in other parts of the world. With that concern foremost in our minds, myself and the members of the SOA hope DPAA will continue to keep those cases as an organizational priority.”

The remains of the 388 services members from the USS Oklahoma are interred in U.S. soil at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, commonly known as the Punchbowl.

Ann Mills-Griffiths, Chairman of the Board of Directors for the National League of POW/MIA Families, added, “I’m optimistic that the permanent DPAA director, when announced and in place, will carefully review all recommendations left by outgoing Interim Director, RADM Mike Franken, and make solid decisions going forward.

“The last several months have been hard on everyone, including those working this mission for years with serious commitment and dedication. It will take principled, strong leadership to restore a unified sense of purpose, but it is doable.”

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