Prior to 2015, the Department of Defense’s efforts to provide a full accounting of U.S. military personnel deemed prisoners of war or missing in action was spread out over three agencies. Merging those three into one office – Defense POW/MIA Accounting Command (DPAA) – in January 2015 already has helped improve the efforts to identify and return home the more than 83,000 U.S. servicemembers classified as either POWs or MIAs.
During the national convention in Cincinnati, Johnie Webb – deputy to the DPAA Commander for External Relations and Legislative Affairs – briefed the Legion’s National Security Commission on his agency’s progress in the past 19 months. Webb said a merger between the former Defense Prisoner of War Missing Personnel Office, the Joint Prisoner of War/Missing in Action Accounting Command and the Life Sciences Equipment Laboratory in January 2015 already has paid off.
“All those agencies were involved previously, but under different commands,” said Webb, who spent 26 years in the U.S. Army. “So while we might have had unity of effort, we did not have unity of commander. With this merger, we do have unity of command … and (we’re) able to move forward with everybody pulling their same weight.”
In January 2016, DPAA became fully operational capable. A deputy director for Operations oversees efforts in the Asia Pacific, Europe, and operations both stateside and in forward operations throughout the world.
This year, DPAA is performing missions in 26 countries with 26 investigation teams and 57 recovery teams. Congress has mandated that DPAA develop the capacity and the capability to identify 200 individuals a year. “Are we going to get there this year?” Webb said. “Probably not, but we’re going to be very close. We’re probably going to be at somewhere between 160 and 180 identifications this year. And then we will continue to see those numbers increase.”
Webb noted that 43 U.S.S. Oklahoma remains previous buried as unknown at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific were disinterred and then identified as of Aug. 17. “That’s what’s happening today,” Webb said. “We can do this identification of these 388 within five years. We think we’re ahead of the plan now and can do it sooner than that.”
Webb said it’s realistic to think that of the remaining POW-MIAs, it’s reasonable to think that approximately 28,000-30,000 will be recovered. To help achieve that goal, DPAA has partnered with various outside organizations, foreign governments and others. DPAA eventually will be issuing grants to supporting organizations and private entities, “which I think is going to bring even more partnerships on board for us to begin working with,” Webb said. “As we try to expand so we can do more with less – because again, everybody’s downsizing – we’re looking to those partnerships. We’ve been successful, and we think we’ll be even more successful.”
Webb said his agency is focused heavily on recovering remains in Vietnam. “We’re rapidly losing any opportunity to recover the remains of those who lost their lives in the Vietnam War,” he said. “What we find is the soil in Vietnam and Laos is so acidic that it is simply causing the remains to completely deteriorate."
Webb briefly spoke about DPAA’s Sen. Daniel K. Inouye Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency building on Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam. Budgeted at $95 million but coming in at $85 million, the facility opened in July 2015 and is 136,000 square feet. It employs 500 personnel and provides twice the analytical DPAA previously had in Hawaii.
“It is a state-of-the-art facility,” Webb said. “The entire third floor is nothing but laboratory space.”
Communication is a key mission of the new agency. Seven times a year DPAA officials conduct meetings in metropolitan areas and invite MIA families living within 350 miles to come to a meeting where they are provided updates about their missing family member. The agency also is developing a portal on its website where families can log in and find all the information DPAA has on a loved one currently missing.
Webb shared the story of identifying the remains of 1st Lt. Alexander Bonnyman, a Medal of Honor recipient killed during the Battle of Tarawa in World War II. A repatriation ceremony for Bonnyman’s was scheduled for Joint Base Pearl Harbor–Hickam in Hawaii, where his youngest daughter lives.
Webb picked Bonnyman’s daughter up to take her to the ceremony and noticed she was holding a lei. “I asked her what plans were for that lei,” Webb said. “She said, ‘Well, it’s tradition that when somebody arrives in Hawaii we give them a lei.’ She had brought the lei to place on his casket.”
Moments like that are what drive his agency’s personnel, Webb said.
“The young men and women performing this mission, almost all of whom were not born when these wars took place … (are) so dedicated to the job that they are doing,” he said. “It’s back-breaking labor to go out and do the work. These teams are deployed anywhere from 30-45 days at a time working these sites. Yes, if they’ve been there for a while and haven’t recovered anything you can see the morale beginning to go down.
“But as soon as they find something for that comrade, for that brother- or sister-in arms, it’s unbelievable because that’s what they’re all about: knowing the work they’re doing is going to provide answers for families that have lived with the uncertainty for 40, 50, 60, 70 years. They make me proud every day with their dedication and their duty.”
As recently as its 2015 national convention, The American Legion reiterated its position on U.S. POWs and MIAs, calling for “the fullest possible accounting for all U.S. military personnel and designated civilian personnel missing and unaccounted for from our nation’s wars and conflicts.” The Legion also will again participate in the National POW-MIA Recognition Day ceremony Sept. 16 in Washington, D.C.
“Thank you, The American Legion, for all that you do for our veterans – and, more specifically, all that you do for the POW-MIA issue in keeping it in the forefront of our nation,” Webb said.