POW/MIA Update: December 20, 2011

AMERICANS IDENTIFIED: There are now still 1,678 Americans listed by the Defense POW/Missing Personnel Office (DPMO) as missing and unaccounted-for from the Vietnam War. On November 15th, DPMO added one name to the list of accounted-for US personnel: First Lieutenant Robert E. Bennett, III, USAF, from New Jersey. 1LT Bennett was listed as KIA/BNR in South Vietnam on December 13, 1967. His remains were recovered April 13, 2010 and identified November 15, 2011. The number of Americans returned and identified since the end of the Vietnam War in 1975 is now 905; another 63 US personnel, recovered post-incident and identified before the end of the war, bring the total to 968. Of the 1,678 unreturned American veterans from the Vietnam War, our POW/MIAs, 90% were lost in Vietnam or in areas of Laos and Cambodia under Vietnam’s wartime control: Vietnam–1,287 (VN-472, VS-815); Laos–326; Cambodia–58; Peoples Republic of China territorial waters–7; over 450 were over-water losses.

PRESIDENT’S HOLIDAY MESSAGE: An electronic Holiday Message from President Obama was received tyesterday, a thoughtful note commending those who serve and, very importantly to all of us still seeking answers, a specific commitment to achieving the accounting for our missing loved ones. In part, the message stated: “As a grateful Nation, we also remember the sacrifices of those who have not returned from the battlefield, and we will not rest until we have accounted for the missing members of our Armed Forces.” We appreciate the President’s renewed commitment, especially in this time of policy and budgetary uncertainty in the Defense Department “accounting community,” and are confident the DoD bureaucracy will carefully review and consider the President’s words

HOUSE RESOLUTION INTRODUCED: Congressman Walter Jones, R-NC, recently introduced H. Res. 485, calling for several important steps by the Secretary of Defense and, most importantly, signaling the need for additional funding to ensure that priority on the accounting mission is sustained and expanded. Though very unlikely to be voted on before Congress reconvenes next year, it is very important that additional House Members sign on to co-sponsor and register their support. PLEASE CONTACT YOUR ELECTED HOUSE MEMBER; ask him or her to contact Congressman Jones’ Military/Legislative Assistant, Ray Celeste, 202-2226-5241 or [email protected]

ACCOUNTING COOPERATION: JPAC is continuing a newly tested recovery process in Vietnam, with Vietnamese Recovery Teams (VRTs) handling all logistic requirements and advance preparation, before being joined by a smaller number of US personnel. This new recovery construct is viewed as a way to expand the pace and scope of field operations, called for by Vietnam since the League Delegation’s visit in March 2009. Initial reports indicated the process is working well; therefore, it has been continued. Field operations are completed for 2011. Due to the lack of a helicopter contract for transporting teams to remote locations, the Lao Government has been asked to permit ground transportation of joint teams to selected sites, with a deadline of December 31st to enable the January JFA (Joint Field Activities) to proceed. The League has also intervened with the Lao Government, appealing for a favorable decision.

A small US team successfully conducted recovery operations in Laos in November but, in early December, JPAC Commander MG Stephen Tom, USAR, conveyed the message to the Lao Government that cost factors and other conditions imposed made extending the helicopter contract illogical. In fact, most Lao Aviation helicopters do not meet safety requirements for transporting US military personnel and, unfortunately, the Lao Government did not extend the existing contract with the privately owned Lao West Coast helicopter company. It will take time to sort out the situation and try to reach agreement; however, in the interim, the League is hoping (as is JPAC) that the Lao Government will respond positively by December 31st, so that more time is not lost.

Small-scale field operations were also conducted in South Korea and the PRC in November, and a fairly large team conducted operations in Vietnam, also in November. The teams conducted investigations, Last Known Alive (LKA) investigations, a VRT and four recoveries, with two Recovery Teams (RTs) extending for two weeks until December 15th, when they redeployed to Hawaii.

Policy concerns arose before and during JPAC’s twice-yearly Commanders Conference, again held in early December, bringing in representatives from Detachments One, Two and Three, Bangkok, Hanoi and Vientiane, respectively. Unfortunately, there is a lot of internal dissension in JPAC, due in no small part to a changing environment that would result in a “Super-CIL” instead of the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command, as chartered when formed in 2003 from the old Joint Task Force Full Accounting (JTF-FA) and Central Identification Laboratory (CIL). Such restructuring could reduce or even eliminate longstanding priority on solving cases of US personnel last known alive in captivity or in proximity to capture. Already there have been steps taken that make clear some in JPAC, primarily the leadership in JPAC’s CIL view the entire issue as an enhanced remains recovery and identification process, with little consideration for hard-earned access agreements reached through difficult negotiations and no focus on discrepancies, even discrepancies such as LKA cases.

LEAGUE CHAIRMAN’S COMMENTARY: There is an increasing pattern of unilateral decision- making within DPMO and JPAC. That can mean imminent danger or, at least, potential harm to the issue, the result of talking with each other and failing to seek input from those most affected. And, as too often occurs within the bureaucracy, if enough people – internal or external – are too tired of fighting or closely monitoring all that is being done behind closed doors, then regulations get slipped through that can, and have, changed policy and direction. Of course, all this occurs while professing adherence to Obama Administration guidance concerning transparency in government.

On this issue, sadly, you can rest assured that there is little to no voluntary consultation or coordination, unless the League discovers information and makes inquiries. It really is shameful that the accounting for America’s POW/MIAs seems to be one of the few issues ongoing where policy changes are considered, and even made, without input and views from those most directly impacted – the POW/MIA families and our Nation’s veterans.

If the higher level policy community does not get more involved and gain better control of potentially damaging trends, it may be time to call for hearings in Congress. That does NOT mean another select committee or “investigation,” but hearings before responsible committees of the House and Senate. With all that is ongoing around the world in countries already engaged, plus the potential for operations in Burma (Myanmar) and North Korea (if the death of Kim Jong Il doesn’t disrupt recent agreements), the massive scope of this issue may require hearings before the House and Senate Armed Services Committees and the Senate Foreign Relations and House International Relations Committees as well.

HOLIDAY GREETINGS: The League wishes one and all a very Merry Christmas and a New Year that is blessed with good health, much happiness, prosperity and peace, as well as many successes in overcoming challenges, whatever they may be. The League office will close for the Christmas Holidays on December 21st and reopen on December 28th.

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