You would have thought that decades after the end of America’s involvement in Vietnam and other wars that the search for service personnel who are missing in action, or prisoners of war, would have been pretty much wrapped up with those who died in service found and brought back to the U.S. for proper and dignified burial and those missing accounted for.
If you thought that was the case you’d be wrong. According to a recent (2013) report by the U.S. Congressional Accounting Office the job is not only not done, but the efforts to find POWs and MIAs is being fouled up by waste, mismanagement, bureaucratic infighting, and dysfunction.
The GAO found that more than 83,000 service and other personnel from conflicts as far back as World War II, the Korean War in the 1950s, as well as Vietnam, the Cold War, and the wars in the Persian Gulf are still unaccounted for. And while you might think the effort to recover lost personnel would be in the hands of a single organization in order to be methodical and efficient, there are actually several organizations within the Department of Defense that have their hand in the POW/MIA issue. There are so many offices and people involved that they have even given birth to their own nickname – the ‘accounting community.’
Only 72 of 83,000 Accounted ForCredit: Vietnam Veterans of America
According to the GAO, in the 10 years between 2002 and 2012, the defense department accounted for an average of 72 POWs or MIAs a year. Upset at the lack of progress, Congress instructed the defense department to get things up to speed – to at least account for 200 people per year by 2015. Part of that Congressional edict mandated that World War II POW/MIAs be added to the search. That alone increased the number being sought from 10,000 to 83,000. Congress also asked the GAO to check out what progress is being made. The results of that audit were -- the job still isn’t being done very well and the results are pathetic.
While acknowledging that the defense department has “made some progress in promoting communication among the several organizations responsible for accounting for missing persons … [the effort] is being undermined by longstanding leadership weaknesses and a fragmented organizational structure,” stated the report
So, what’s the problem? The GAO says that the defense department hasn’t even been able to formulate a plan for accomplishing their goals. Further, the roles and responsibilities of the various entities involved in searching for POWs and MIAs still haven’t been well defined. Accordingly, there are still duplication of efforts that wastes time and money. Even the various military commands throughout the involved geographic areas haven’t been able find common ground about who does what, how and where. A number of other problems are getting in the way of the military successfully increasing the number of POWs and MIAs being accounted for.
The GAO has made a number of recommendations aimed at rectifying the problem and speeding up the search. These include a complete reorganization of the administrative structure dealing with the search for POWs and MIAs; getting planning up to speed; and more.
Congressional Hearings Held
Needless to say, Congress was not too happy to learn of the military’s ineffectual progress. Hearings held on the matter by the Senate’s Homeland Security & Governmental Affairs’ Financial & Contracting Oversight Subcommittee blistered the defense department on its lack of progress.
Senator Kelly Ayotte (R-NH) said, “This has just got to stop...I think (Defense) Secretary Hagel needs to focus on this as well and make sure … [a] new organizational structure … eliminates the squabbling, that eliminates the competing plans, and that's going to accomplish what all of us want to accomplish in bringing the remains home."
Her colleague, Senator Claire McCaskill (D-MO) said, “Over the last five years, Congress has appropriated nearly $500 million for this effort. In 2012 alone, this amounted to over $132 million, approximately $50 million more than the previous year. These added funds were intended to ensure that the Department had every resource it needed to increase its capacity to account for 200 missing persons by 2015, a requirement set by Congress in 2009.”
In spite of the Congressional demand, the head of the POW/MIA search effort suggested the goal couldn’t be achieved. Air Force Maj. Gen. Kelly McKeague, commander of the Joint POW-MIA Command, said the goal of 200 identifications of war remains per year by 2015 isn’t likely to be achieved. He said it was more realistic to set a goal of 125 identifications per year.
That wasn’t welcome news for Senator McCaskill who said it had been three years since Congress issued the mandate and there is still not even a plan to achieve the original goal or any other. It's actually "lost in a deep black hole at the Pentagon," said the Senator.
Even the Pentagon’s Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin Dempsey, termed the Pentagon’s effort "moving rapidly toward disgraceful.”
Though the sub-committee took no specific action, both Senators called on Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel to expedite the process and report back on progress.