POW/MIA Update: May 14, 2012

AMERICANS ACCOUNTED-FOR: There are still 1,666 Americans listed by the Defense POW/Missing Personnel Office (DPMO) as missing and unaccounted-for from the Vietnam War. The most recent identifications are a USAF group of personnel listed as MIA in Laos on 12/24/65. Personnel included Colonels Joseph Christiano, NY, Dennis L. Eilers, IA, Derrell B. Jeffords, AZ and Chief Master Sergeants William K. Coldwell, NY, and Larry C. Thornton, ID. Their remains were recovered on 2/18/2010 and identified on 3/5/2012. Also announced as accounted-for was Captain Vergil K. Meroney III, USAFR, AR, MIA in Laos on 3/1/1969. His remains were recovered on 11/16/2010 and identified on 3/5/2012. The number of Americans announced as returned and identified since the end of the Vietnam War in 1975 is now 917. Another 63 US personnel, recovered post-incident and identified before the end of the war, bring the officially listed total recovered and identified to 980. Of the 1,666 still missing and unaccounted-for from the Vietnam War, 90% were lost in Vietnam or in areas of Laos and Cambodia under Vietnam’s wartime control: Vietnam–1,284 (VN-471, VS-813); Laos–318; Cambodia–57; Peoples Republic of China territorial waters–7; more than 450 were over-water losses.

ACCOUNTING COOPERATION: POW/MIA Technical Talks were held May 4th in Hanoi, Vietnam. Initial reports from the discussions are very positive, including Vietnam’s turnover of long-requested archival documents, a League priority for many years during which lists have been provided with requests for unilateral provision of such archival records. Prepared and repeatedly updated by DPMO’s Research Analysis Directorate and JPAC’s J2 (Intelligence Directorate), these lists have been raised by US officials and the League as a means to prompt greater Vietnamese responsiveness. This decision by Vietnam’s leaders is most welcome and deeply appreciated. The current political environment, including aggressive PRC actions related to territorial disputes over the South China Sea, is prompting expanded military-to-military cooperation between the US and Vietnam, with spin-off increases in cooperation across the board in matters pertaining to bilateral interests of both countries. Vietnam has long recognized the important role that the POW/MIA issue played as the “bridge” to expanding and broadening bilateral relations.

Joint Field Activities (JFAs) in Vietnam have also expanded; The largest such operations in some time, including six recovery teams and two investigation teams, recently concluded and the next JFA is scheduled to be large as well. Joint Advance Work is regularly scheduled outside the 30-45 days JFAs to facilitate time in-country when the full teams arrive. Until recently, the US had largely failed to respond to Vietnam’s 2009 proposal to the League to “increase the pace and scope” of such operations. The next JFA in Vietnam will also include multiple Recovery Teams (RTs), an Underwater Recovery Team (URT), an Investigation Team (IT) and a Research Investigation Team (RIT), the latter most often focused on cases of US personnel last known alive (LKA). This pace must be continued and, where possible, further expanded to enable getting answers before witnesses are no longer available and remains have disintegrated even more due to acidic soil in the region.

DIA’s Stony Beach POW/MIA specialist in Laos, Dustin Roses, was finally allowed to participate in the JFA conducted most recently, a long-overdue, important step toward fully utilizing this specialist, but the Lao government has not yet agreed for him to conduct such interviews outside the limited timing of JPAC field operations. The Lao position continues, despite the fact that all Stony Beach interviews would be fully coordinated with the Lao, and trips outside Vientiane would be in the company of a designated Lao official. The League hopes this initial step will demonstrate to skeptical Lao decision-makers that this highly qualified specialist is focused solely on POW/MIA matters. There is no viable rationale for limiting his ability to help locate information useful to the accounting mission.

A major obstacle to accounting operations in Laos is that only one Lao Air helicopter is currently certified as safe to carry US military personnel; therefore, the most recent JFA in Laos was one of the smallest yet. Lao officials are seeking greater compensation for decreased support, claiming that Lao Air is a private company, rather than owned and supported by the Lao Ministry of National Defense (MND). The League believes extraordinary demands for compensation are demeaning to the principles of joint humanitarian cooperation, as well as short-sighted and damaging to the investment climate, when foreign direct investment is a high priority for Laos.

JPAC also recently completed a successful JFA in Cambodia, though utilizing only one RT and one trilateral investigation team, working with Cambodian counterparts. This was the first JFA in Cambodia this year, but more investigations and recoveries should be scheduled in FY12, instead of completing only one per year. With only 57 US personnel still listed as unaccounted-for in Cambodia, and six or so incidents located and awaiting excavation, an all-out push by the US, ably assisted by Cambodian officials whose cooperation is the most highly praised, could actually achieve “fullest possible accounting” objectives in the near term. Expectations must be reasonable and tempered by knowledge of the horrors inflicted by the Khmer Rouge on the Cambodian people.

STATUS OF JPAC FUNDING & PERSONNEL: According to JPAC Commander MG Steve Tom, USAR, FY12 funding is secure for scheduled operations. That assurance is welcome, but leaves unanswered questions about incremental timing of JPAC’s receipt of such FY12 funds and funding required for FY13 and beyond in this era of budget cuts. Though no adverse impact on Vietnam War accounting has been publicly acknowledged for FY12, JPAC could decide to alter schedules, especially if promised funding does not arrive in JPAC accounts before deadlines for making go/no-go decisions. Due to North Korea’s action, operations there have again been halted, but WWII recovery operations in Burma are moving forward. This situation warrants very close monitoring.

JPAC PLANNING EXERCISE: Selected JPAC officials met in closed session over a period of two weeks to discuss long-term plans to fulfill their interpretation of the accounting mission. Though planning is always a good thing, including contingency planning, any expansion of operations to recover remains of Korean War and WWII personnel must not be the result of reducing Vietnam War accounting operations. Some in JPAC are advocating a “Super CIL” approach, with too little consider-ation of conditions and circumstances, such as remains destruction due to the acidic soil in Vietnam War-related countries. Recovery operations in Burma/Myanmar are moving forward, and POW/MIA talks were held the last week of April. The League has advocated and welcomes bilateral humanitarian cooperation in Burma/Myanmar but, again, NOT by reducing Vietnam War accounting efforts. As above on funding and personnel concerns, this is something to closely monitor. Members of Congress must understand the need for adequate funding to simultaneously pursue accountability for personnel missing from all wars.

CHANGES COMING TO DPMO: Reportedly, MG W. Montague “Que” Winfield, USA (Ret), is to arrive May 21st as the new Deputy Assistant Secretary for POW/Missing Personnel Affairs and Director of DPMO. He replaces former DASD Bob Newberry whose reported last day was May 10th, though arrival and departure dates have been changed several times. The League’s advocacy for additional JPAC funding and personnel to enable expansion of field operations also entailed opposition to some DPMO initiatives to engage in operations, rather than providing the policy guidance and support for which DPMO was established. Unified action by the major national veteran organizations and the League was also in opposition to DPMO’s attempt, backed by DoD and others, to control the US-Russia Joint Commission on POW/MIA Affairs (USRJC) and subsume it under a DoD-controlled working group as part of a broader “reset” in US-Russian relations. Hopefully, MG Winfield will not fall victim to listening to those in DPMO whose vision was not shared or supported by those of us most directly affected, the POW/MIA families and our nation’s veterans.

AMG Note: A separate notice on the League’s 43rd Annual Meeting, June 14-16th, will be distributed by mail and posted on the League’s website and Facebook page. It is a notice that should, and likely will, cause concern, as it reflects DPMO leadership’s view toward the League, the POW/MIA families and the countless veterans who support us.

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