For an example of why military leadership among general staff is increasingly being questioned about moral character and trustworthiness, look no further than Michael S. Linnington, the current director of DoD’s POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA).
After Secretary of Defense Ash Carter announced on June 19, 2015 that then-Army Lt. Gen. Linnington would retire to assume the duties of directing the newly formed DPAA, Linnington appeared before the National League of POW/MIA Families and proudly announced that he would serve his entire 10-year team as director of DPAA.
That promise to fulfill his 10-year “commitment” to the POW/MIA issue was echoed by Linnington several times after formally taking office last year, telling the Special Operations Association (SOA), the VFW, and family members who have siblings or parents still listed as missing in action from WW II, the Korea War and the Vietnam War.
In a perfectly orchestrated set of releases on June 17, however, Linnington showed his true colors: he announced that he was leaving DPAA for a “large non-profit that serves our military community…” A few minutes later the controversial Wounded Warrior Project (WWP) announced that it was hiring Linnington as its new chief executive officer, effective July 18. The only detail missing from the WWP press release was how much more money it would pay Linnington above his measly six-figure government salary.
Linnington’s surprise announcement sent shock waves through the veteran and POW/MIA family communities for two reasons:
1.) His announcement and selection had been based on finding a leader to combine three federal agencies: DPAA consolidated 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), 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.
2.) His assignment was to bring increased efficiency to the entire POW/MIA effort by the U.S. Government – which in the history of modern warfare has been unprecedented. He also had to end the internal bickering and inter-departmental turf battles that had festered behind the scenes for years prior to DPAA being launched in 2015. After watching gross ineptitude reign supreme behind the scenes for years, while family members literally died waiting for the remains of loved one to be returned to the U.S. for proper burial and recognition, Linnington appeared to be the right man to address those challenges. The National League of POW/MIA Families and many veteran organizations echoed that belief.
Linnington looked straight into the camera and said he was committed to serve the full 10-year term as the first director of DPAA.
Thursday’s orchestrated PR campaign ended that charade and triggered a new wave of uncertainty and concern for families of those missing in action and for veterans who have lost comrades-in-arms on the battlefield.
“I am shocked and caught flat footed by this announcement,” said former Green Beret Rick Estes, president of the Special Operations Association – a non-profit veterans organization of Green Berets, SEALs, Force Recon and Army, Air Force and Marine Corps aviators who fought in the deadly eight-year secret war during the Vietnam War. “Quitting one year after he made a ten-year promise to veterans and the National League of POW/MIA Families? What a bitter disappointment.”
Another retired Green Beret who has followed the POW/MIA issue for 50 years was more blunt: “He (Linnington) is abandoning this honorable mission – after false claims of commitment to it, to descend into the Wounded Warrior Project, an organization that is viewed by myself and many other veterans as a known cesspool of fraud and waste and a lack of honesty to the public. To me that is incomprehensible and despicable. It’s the penultimate betrayal.”
Earlier this year the New York Times and SOFREP reported on the extreme lavish spending WWP has directed for key employees while emerging as a fundraising powerhouse since it first opened its doors in 2003. In 2014, WWP spent $3 million for an employee bash in Colorado Springs, CO and CBS reported that WWP spent $26 million that year alone on events. Additionally, non-profit charity watchdogs have criticized WWP for spending more than 40 percent of its donations in 2014 on its overhead alone, which is $124 million. The Semper Fi Fund spent about eight percent on overhead, in comparison. Its national television advertising has also hurt other veteran groups efforts to raise funds.
“Almost exactly a year ago, at our 46th Annual Meeting, DPAA Director Mike Linnington gave the families and veterans his word that he would be with the mission ‘for the long term, at least ten years,’” said Ann Mills-Griffiths, chairman and CEO for the National League of POW/MIA Families. “His unexpected resignation came as a shocking reversal. E-mails and calls since the announcement expressed understandable frustration and anger, but we’ve been through many disappointments since 1992 and know the long-service dedicated civilians have been the core of accounting efforts for years. We trust them to continue as they have, in the best interest of our country.”
In a letter written to veteran service officers on Thursday, Linnington wrote, the “DPAA and its mission benefits from the superb leadership of two high-skilled and capable deputies (Mrs. Fern Winbush and BG Mark Spindler), and they will maintain the focus and direction of the agency until a new director is chosen. In early July, Mrs. Fern Winbush will assume duties as acting director in the interim period.”
Winbush is an intelligent, long-time government employee who has traveled to various DPAA sites around the world learning about DPAAs missions and many complicated relationships from dealing with foreign powers such as Russia and North Korea, to visiting DPAA teams carefully searching sites in Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia for the remains of the 1,618 remaining service members listed today as Missing in Action from the Vietnam War in Southeast Asia.
Spindler remains a question mark, as he is part of a trend that began before Linnington’s appointment to DPAA where military officers are increasingly being brought into key slots throughout the department for tours of duty that may last two or three years, replacing many veteran, long-time civilians who are cognizant of the complicated history and issues surrounding recovering the remains of missing U.S. service members around the world.
For example, in February, Spindler was quoted in newspapers and elsewhere as emphasizing DPAA’s efforts to recover all of the remaining 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 War. That annual accounted-for number has become a controversial issue both internally and with outside groups because experienced, knowledgeable experts in the POW/MIA field estimated that between 25,000 to 32,000 service members remains from previous war can still be recovered because the remaining 51,000 are listed as over-water missing in action – both Navy personnel from ships and all aviation losses over deep, ocean water since WWII.
Spindler’s quotes reflect either blissful ignorance of this controversial point or are a part of his agenda to appease WWII family members and politicians as opposed to being honest with the family members of the 51,000 “over-water missing in action” service members.
Linnington himself and other veteran DPAA officials, at national DPAA family briefings held across the country annually, have stated that the 51,000 number cannot be recovered due to the extreme depths of the oceans where those service members disappeared. The National League of POW/MIA Families has gracefully addressed this issue, agreeing with Linnington.
Additional confusion to this issue stemmed from a 2009 Congressional mandate that the Pentagon develop the “capacity and capability” to be able to identify up to 200 missing-in-action service members per year.
Since that Congressional mandate was written, there has been a lot of pressure to increase the number of missing personnel identified and recovered annually. There has been a tendency to work on cases from WWII and Korea, where individual sites will have more remains, thus increasing the number of service members identified on foreign soil as well as recovering more service members’ remains while deemphasizing Southeast Asia recovery efforts. Spindler is viewed by many as be a numbers cruncher who is pushing to get the 200 number changed to actual remains recovered, failing to recognize the Congressional mandate to simply develop the capacity and capability to identify 200 cases.
No one has publicly corrected Spindler, which begs the question now that Linnington is leaving his morale high ground for WWP big bucks: what policy will DPAA follow in the months ahead, the reality of recovering up to 32,000 service members remains – a formidable task in and of itself, or publicly tout the unrealistic 83,000 number?
For Vietnam veterans there’s an additional, compelling aspect to this argument: Will the emphasis to push “recovering” bigger numbers from WWII large grave sites come at the expense of working the remaining 1,618 MIA cases in Southeast Asia.
“Remember, in Southeast Asia, we have an additional force working against the remaining MIA cases,” said the SOA’s Estes: “The soil in Southeast Asia is among, if not the most acidic in the world. As such, human remains deteriorate at a higher rate than elsewhere in the world, which is a compelling reason to place more emphasis there because the soil is literally working against the service members left behind in Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam.”
So, in addition to worrying about nature destroying the remains of U.S. service members in Southeast Asia, now Vietnam veterans have to face yet another governmental betrayal by a key leader in the MIA issue: Mike Linnington.