WASHINGTON (September 15, 2011) — As Americans pause tomorrow to observe POW/MIA Recognition Day, teams of military and civilian experts will be excavating sites in Europe and the South Pacific looking for remains to help identify service members still missing from past wars.
Teams from Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command, based at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam in Hawaii, will be on the job, working to provide the fullest possible accounting of America’s missing, and living up to their command’s motto, “Until they are home.”
Additional teams are preparing for similar missions over the next couple of months to South Korea, Laos, China, Vietnam and Germany, said Army Maj. Ramon Osorio, a JPAC spokesman.
POW/MIA Recognition Day honors the sacrifices America’s missing service members and their families have made for their country, Osorio said.
But as President Barack Obama emphasized today in his POW/MIA Recognition Day proclamation, it also provides an important reminder that the United States is committed to bringing its fallen service members home to their families – and that it won’t give up, no matter how long it takes, or how difficult it might be.
“We will never give up the search for those who are held as prisoners of war or have gone missing under our country’s flag,” he said. “We honor their sacrifice, and we must care for their families and pursue the fullest possible accounting for all missing members of our armed forces.
“Together, we must serve our nation’s patriots as well as they have served us – by supporting them when they come home, and by carrying on the legacy of those who do not,” he continued. “This is a promise we keep for our fallen, for our veterans past and present, and for all those whose loved ones have not returned from the battlefield.”
JPAC’s mission is to provide the fullest possible accounting for about 84,000 U.S. servicemembers from the nation’s wars. The vast majority of these – 74,184 – are from World War II, but the lost also include 1,680 from Vietnam, 7,979 from Korea, and 127 from the Cold War.
In addition, two U.S. soldiers from the current operations are classified as “Missing-Captured.” Army Spec. Ahmed Altaie, an Army Reserve soldier assigned to Provincial Reconstruction Team Baghdad, allegedly was kidnapped in October 2006 while on his way to visit his family in Baghdad. The Pentagon changed his status from “Duty Status Whereabouts Unknown” to “Missing-Captured” in December 2006.
Army Pfc. Bowe Bergdahl, a member of the 25th Infantry Division’s 4th Brigade Combat Team, was captured in Afghanistan’s Paktika province on June 30, 2009. His status was changed to “Missing-Captured” on July 3, 2009 after the Taliban released video of him that was later authenticated by U.S. officials.
Because they are associated with ongoing operations, U.S. Central Command has lead responsibility for these efforts, Osorio said.
But for all other cases, JPAC is committed to the fullest possible accounting of every missing U.S. military member. “That’s what we would love to do, and to be able to tell every family member that we are going to find every last person,” Osorio said.
But it’s an admittedly daunting task, particularly in light of the many World War II MIAs who served aboard aircraft lost at sea. “The number is staggering,’ Osorio said.
Despite the challenges, JPAC has had a solid track record of success. Since 2003, its 400 military and civilian specialists have identified more than 750 missing Americans. Combined with efforts of its predecessor units dating back to the 1970s, it has identified close to 2,000 service members, Osorio reported.
Earlier this month, on Sept. 1, the Defense Department announced that the remains of one more, Air Force Maj. Thomas E. Reitmann who was shot down over North Vietnam in 1965, had been identified and returned to his family for burial with full military honors in Arlington National Cemetery.
JPAC is working to build on those successes, sending teams that include forensic anthropologists, forensic archeologists and scientific directors to potential crash and burial sites around the world. Teams returned during the past week from Papua New Guinea, Vietnam, Europe and, possibly to some people’s surprise, to Canada, where an underwater recovery team investigated a World War II aircraft downing just off the coast.
Two additional missions are under way at World War II sites: one west of Frankfurt, Germany, and another in Vanuatu in the South Pacific.
Once remains or other personal artifacts such as dogtags are repatriated to JPAC’s headquarters in Hawaii, experts at the command’s Central Identification Laboratory – the world’s largest forensic anthropology lab – use the most advanced science available to match them to a specific missing service member. Among tools used is mitochondrial DNA, which includes unique signatures from the maternal line and helps the JPAC staff make identifications once not considered possible.
But JPAC doesn’t work alone in fulfilling its mission. It works “all the time, every day” with the Armed Forces DNA identification Laboratory in Rockville, Md., which runs DNA sequences for JPAC and provides a system of double-checks for findings, Osorio said.
In addition, the Defense Prisoner of War/Missing Personnel Office in Washington provides policy guidance and oversight for its missions. And each service has an office that works directly with families of the missing throughout the accounting process.
As JPAC pauses tomorrow to host a POW/MIA Recognition Day ceremony at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, known as the “Punchbowl,” and other military bases around the world commemorate the day, Osorio emphasized that accounting for America’s MIAs is 365-day-a-year mission.
“The reason we continue to do this is because it is the right thing to do,” he said. “People understand the importance of not forgetting the sacrifices that those who have gone before us have made…”
“For those who decided to raise their right hand and go forth to do that, we owe it to them and we definitely owe it to their families so they know we are going to give our 200 percent to do what’s right and work as hard as we can to find as many of them as we possibly can.”
This, he said, sends a powerful message to those serving in today’s conflicts.
“If we are going to ask you to go off and put yourself in harm’s way and potentially pay the ultimate price, if tragedy were to strike, knowing that your country has your back and will do everything it possibly can do to ensure you end up with your family,” he said. “That is huge. It clearly shows the men and women who are serving today at America stands behind them, regardless of what may occur.”