The Defense Department is close to naming the second director of the recently 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 rolling in early 2014, when then-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.”

In 2015, the DPAA was formed through consolidation of three 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 remains 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, 2015 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 was named in June 2015. LTG Mike Linnington was the first DPAA director appointed in June 2015 for what was advertised as a 10-year tour of duty with the fledging federal, merged agency. However, Linnington resigned in June after one year on the job, thus necessitating a search for a new director that continues today.

“Once again, Vietnam veterans and the families of our nations missing-in-action service members are in the awkward position of waiting for national leadership, during an election year no less, to find a new DPAA director,” said Rick Estes, 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.

“Naturally, we share the concerns of all families from all wars who have loved ones missing in action from World War II, Korea or Vietnam,” said Estes. “But, our situation in Southeast Asia (SEA) has a heightened sense of urgency due to the acidic soil, which we’re told, by experts, is the most acidic in the world. That acidic soil is destroying not only the remains of our missing in action but it’s eating away at their bones and teeth, literally destroying the final, potential clues to their identity. Thus, our sense of urgency.”

Ann Mills-Griffiths, CEO and chairman of the National League of POW/MIA Families board of directors, said, “Selection of a qualified DPAA director is critical to increasing momentum before time runs out. That means being able to hit the ground running, someone who has earned the respect from the families, our nation’s veterans and, very importantly, the respect of U.S. and foreign officials whose cooperation and support are necessary and critical to reach accounting goals.”

Mills-Griffiths and Estes declined to name any of the finalists, nor to name any of the finalists they and their organizations support for the top DPAA slot. “All I can say is, of the candidates there is one whom the SOA and the Special Forces Association supports, but this remains a very private selection process…needless to say, we hope a qualified leader is picked sooner than later because there are still 1,618 services members missing in Southeast Asia…Of particular concern to me and the Special Forces associations are the Green Berets still missing in action from the secret war fought during the Vietnam War. Today there are approximately 50 Green Berets still listed as missing in action in Laos alone, in addition to the 260 aviators who died there. Of those 260, it is estimated that at least 105 died in support of the secret war. Sadly, the last announced remains from Southeast Asia occurred on June 9.”

Estes, a combat veteran who fought in the secret war from April ’68 – April ’69, touched upon a controversial issue that simmers quietly out of public view, both internally and with outside groups within the POW/MIA community, stemming from the annual accounted-for number. 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 issue estimate that between 25,000 to 35,000 service members from previous wars can still be recovered. The remaining, approximately 51,000 are listed as over-water missing in action—both Navy personnel from ships and all aviation losses over water since WWII, many of which are deep water losses.

Additional confusion to this issue was added in 2009 when 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 admitted could not be met last year. The mandate didn’t stipulate actually recovering 200 MIAs, just to develop “the capacity and capability” to identify up to 200 MIAs a year.

Thus, there’s been pressure both within some 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 that remains missing, than digging in the jungles of SEA for one or two sets of remains.

Reflecting a division with 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 under Linnington 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.”

Neither Linnington, nor any other DPAA official has publicly countered Spindler’s comment. Linnington always strongly advocated for recovering SEA service members remains, but, Spindler remains on the job and there are people in DPAA pushing for numbers, over SEA recovery efforts, which concerns Vietnam veterans.

For example, in April 2015 DoD staff said it would disinter 388 unaccounted-for sailors and Marines associated with the USS Oklahoma from WWII. 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. With modern forensic sciences, larger numbers can be recovered, but will such an effort negatively impact SEA efforts?

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

  • Improving agency morale
  • Changing WWII priority of previous administration to Vietnam War missing in action, where there are still 1,618 Americans listed as MIA
  • Improving internal agency communications
  • Improving agency links with Laos and Vietnam. Cambodia has been cooperative in the last decade.
  • Supporting an effort to renew and restore the work of the old U.S.-Russia Joint Commission on POW/MIA Affairs.

To Linnington’s credit he worked hard to expand collaborative efforts with private researchers to large non-government organizations, including universities and foreign government agencies via voluntary, non-contractual and contractual agreements. Such efforts will allow DPAA to expand its capacity to search for European WWII losses while preserving the capacity to continue to pursue the challenging recoveries in SEA. In late 2015, Linnington pointed out that DPAA has contractors working with agency officials in the Hurtgen Forest in Germany, the Solomon Islands, and in Palau.

In addition, the U.S.-Russia Joint Commission on POW/MIA Affairs (USRJC), led by U.S. co-chairman, retired Air Force General Robert ‘Doc’ Foglesong, was resurrected from oblivion at a crucial time. In November, 2015 General Foglesong met in Moscow with the newly named Russian co-chairman, the first such direct engagement in years.

Linnington’s announcement of Fogleson’s visits to Moscow, where Fogleson met with the Russian co-chairman, General Colonel Valery Aleksandrovich Vostrotin outlined a hope for renewing and restoring the work of the USRJC. He noted the importance of the new Russian office of the USRJC located in the embassy of the Russian Federation, which was opened in July 2015. That office will be headed by Maxim N. Alekseev, whom Mills-Griffiths described in an earlier interview as “an impressive Russian official with a diverse background and record of experience” in the POW/MIA arena.

She added earlier this year that, “If Russian leaders decide to cooperate seriously, Moscow can contribute much. Key archival records could be provided. Potential firsthand witnesses include former Soviet personnel who served in northern Laos and Vietnam during the Vietnam War.”

Last, but certainly not least, Linnington was able to end the three-year DPAA hiring freeze. In the months ahead, the DPAA will be hiring more anthropologists, archeologists, researchers, team leaders, and lab personnel.

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 earlier this year 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.

Featured image courtesy of DPAA