Can Pentagon Fix Shameful Track Record of Finding and Identifying Remains of Missing U.S. Soldiers in Foreign Lands?

Saturday, February 07, 2015
Plaque at Veterans Memorial Park in Rhome, Texas (photo: Wikipedia)

The remains of thousands of American soldiers dating as far back as World War II still have not been brought home, despite the Department of Defense spending millions every year to locate and return these remains to their families.


Outgoing Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel promised to implement reforms to erase the backlog of “unknowns,” buried around the world, believed to be about 9,400 according to ProPublica. Some of the missing fought in Vietnam, others during the Korean War, and still others in World War II.


One unknown was Private Arthur “Bud” Kelder, who died in the Philippines 73 years ago. Kelder was buried with several other prisoners in 1942 near the Japanese prison camp in which he died. Although Kelder’s family members provided strong evidence of the location of his remains, the Joint Prisoners of War/Missing in Action Accounting Command (J-PAC) and its longtime scientific director, Tom Holland, refused to investigate the grave and have Kelder’s remains shipped home. Only after the Kelder family’s story was published did the Pentagon officially identify his remains last month. Holland was fired late last year.


J-PAC also declined to work to return home the remains of another soldier, this one from Europe. Private First Class Lawrence Gordon was killed in Normandy in 1944 and was mistakenly identified as a German soldier and buried in a German cemetery. It fell to the Germans, our former enemies, and the French to send Gordon’s remains home.


A key to identifying remains buried overseas is DNA—that of the soldiers and any relatives still alive. But with many from the World War II era in their 80s and 90s, fewer relatives are available for officials to contact and collect genetic material from.


Holland’s office was reluctant to use DNA to identify soldiers’ remains for fear of making an error, saying they must first narrow down who the person might be. “It doesn’t matter that I’ve identified 500 people correctly. If I misidentify one, that’s what going to be the focus. That’s what’s going to be on the news. That is what is going to erode the credibility. That’s what I go home with every night,” Holland told ProPublica last year.


Hagel hopes to address these problems through “sweeping reforms to address the current inefficiency” and the establishment of a new office to oversee the POW/MIA identification. In addition, “a medical examiner will lead identification efforts that will rely heavily on the latest in DNA testing and a new database will list all of the missing. The new agency will also seek assistance from other organizations and outside groups,” according to Sara Afzal at ProPublica.


The changes should improve a process that currently identifies an average of only 72 people a year, even though the Pentagon spends $100 million annually on this effort.

-Noel Brinkerhoff, Steve Straehley


To Learn More:

The Pentagon’s Failure to Find Long Lost Soldiers (by Sara Afzal, ProPublica)

Pentagon Overhauls Effort to Identify its Missing (by Megan McCloskey, ProPublica)

French, Germans Return Fallen GI After Pentagon Fails To Act (by Megan McCloskey, ProPublica)

The Military Is Leaving the Missing Behind (by Megan McCloskey, ProPublica)

North Korea Wants America to Take Home the Bodies of 5,000 Soldiers (Associated Press)

Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (U.S. Department of Defense)

Air Force Dumped Ashes of 274 Troops in Landfill (by Noel Brinkerhoff, AllGov)

Gruesome Details of Mishandled War Dead at Dover Air Force Base (by Noel Brinkerhoff, AllGov)


SNNNN 9 years ago
Being in the military also carries the very real possibility your life will be in harms way. The folks who never saw the next sunset on December 7th come to mind. If a youngster thinking of a military career hears of this what is he/she to think. Still excited about talking to that Marine Recruiter after reading this? This behavior has CONSEQUENCES beyond just a grave side ceremony.....
Jpecker 9 years ago
JPAC "claims" that they recovered 107 new remains in 2014. Who can believe that? Tom Holland is fired? Where did he go, to another Government job? Tom Holland and others in the CIL tried to fire or get rid of a lot of people in JPAC, but only succeeded in getting themselves fired. Paul Cole and Tom Holland fired, Fox retired and Belcher went to another Government job in Pearl Harbor. Rick Stone fired, and General McKeague demoted. Bradford, resigned Anderson and Byrd hanging in there. What a mess.
Jpacker 9 years ago
JPAC has now been officially dissolved. After multiple JPAC scandals were exposed by NBC, CBS, Fox News, NPR, the AP, Stars and Stripes and a host of other media outlets; the American public and families of our MIAs channeled their anger, frustration, humiliation, and feelings of betrayal to demand the immediate removal of those responsible for what the the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey, called “disgraceful” when he described the situation at JPAC. The Secretary of Defense pledged to the American public that a "paradigm shift" away from "outdated, institutionalized thinking" at JPAC was in the offing. So far, the “deactivation” of JPAC has simply demoted the previous JPAC commander to the deputy commander position and “replaced” the previous JPAC scientific director with a figurehead who is not even allowed to office in the laboratory. The same old group of poor leaders and managers remain in control. Many, many more personnel changes are needed or else this fix of JPAC will be akin to putting a band aid on the top of a tumor and expecting the cancerous cells that caused the malignant growth to simply go away. The new agency commander inherits a long pattern of dysfunction, inefficient practices, wasteful and poor management, lack of leadership, and more than 40 pending complaints of sexual harassment by command personnel, EEO violations, criminal investigations, lawsuits, and complaints of managerial reprisal that were detailed in scathing official reports by the Inspector General’s Office and the Government Accountability Office. The same group of serial offenders responsible remain in the “new” DPAA. The same group that brought us multiple outrageous scandals including phony “arrival home” ceremonies, fraud, waste and abuse of government funds, and a “it can’t be done” attitude that produces only five or six dozen identifications a year with an annual budget that far exceeds $100 million. The same group that average ELEVEN YEARS to make an identification after remains are recovered. The same group who warehouse the backlogged sets of recovered remains of more than 1,000 American servicemen and women in cardboard boxes in the laboratory storage room. The same group who are incapable of identifying these heroes because their methods are antiquated and obsolete. More scandals by this group will soon come to light and there is no end in sight until they are gone for good. There are many truly dedicated men and women who worked at JPAC in non-management roles who believed in the mission: researchers, military recovery specialists, and field investigators who hack through jungles, climb mountains, and wade rivers only to be sabotaged in their work by a completely dysfunctional command. They are dismayed, disillusioned, disheartened, disgusted, and still disbelieving of what they experienced at JPAC and what they now see as a lack of action in holding those responsible accountable for their abysmal failures. The entire operation that was JPAC must be deconstructed, brick by brick, so that a new phoenix can rise from the ashes of JPAC’s disaster. Such needed massive reform cannot be accomplished by changing the name of the organization, removing just a few low level contract researchers, re-shuffling the same poor managers to new desks and titles in a brand new $85 million dollar building in Hawaii, and allowing those in the JPAC laboratory who continue to support the complacent attitude of not keeping up with modern science such as DNA, to keep their jobs. To do so would only allow the same infectious disease of arrogance and lies to the families of American heroes to take root all over again. The disaster that was JPAC has been added to the VA Hospital, Dover Mortuary, Arlington Cemetery, and the Viet Nam Unknown debacles. Tthe ghosts of over 83,000 brave American heroes who remain unaccounted for, and their families, are deserving of much more than the status quo of leaving those in charge at JPAC to stay and infect the “new” organization before it is even off the ground.

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