In March 2014 Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel directed the merger of the two main U.S. government agencies tasked with accounting for the more than 83,000 American military personnel still listed as missing from the nation’s conflicts. The consolidation was intended, at least in part, to resolve what critics saw as bureaucratic ineptitude and organizational dysfunction within the Defense Prisoner of War/Missing Personnel Office and the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command. In January 2015 the Washington, D.C.–based Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency was established as the single organization with oversight of personnel-accounting resources, research and operations across the Department of Defense (DOD). In June 2015 Michael S. Linnington, a retired U.S. Army lieutenant general, was named DPAA’s first permanent director.
‘Although recovery and identification of MIAs from past conflicts gets the majority of attention, communicating with the families of our missing and telling the story of their loved ones is equally important’
What compelled you to become DPAA director?
As a former soldier, remaining in DOD and being part of an organization responsible for finding and accounting for men and women from across our country who fought our nation’s wars, yet never returned, is an honor and a privilege. This job as one of the most important assignments I’ve ever had.
What is the agency’s mission?
Our primary mission is twofold: to provide the fullest possible accounting for our missing personnel to their families and the nation, and to provide accurate and timely information to the families of our missing. Although recovery and identification of MIAs from past conflicts gets the majority of attention, communicating with the families of our missing and telling the story of their loved ones is equally important.
How are the 83,000 missing apportioned?
More than 73,000 are from World War II—about 50,000 of those are deep-water losses, which are considered unrecoverable—and we are focusing on recovery of about 23,000 MIAs from that conflict. There are 7,841 Americans still unaccounted for from the Korean War, 1,626 from the Vietnam War, 126 from the Cold War and six from our nation’s recent conflicts.
What are DPAA’s priorities?
First, to continue focusing on providing the fullest possible accounting of our missing personnel to their families and our nation. Second, to complete the consolidation and reorganization of past conflict-accounting efforts into a single agency. Third, to prioritize efforts to use technology to improve our productivity and modernize the way we maintain and share information. Fourth, to continue improving communications with families of our missing, family support groups, veterans’ service organizations and other partners. Fifth, to develop and expand strategic partnerships with foreign governments, U.S. and international universities, public and private companies, nongovernmental organizations and private citizens. These partnerships are meant to increase our capabilities and supplement, not replace, government efforts.
How is DPAA organized?
We are aligning all aspects of the accounting effort into a regional-area focus. Our team in Hawaii will focus on Asia and the Pacific, while the D.C.-based team will focus on Europe and the Mediterranean. We have a world-class laboratory in Hawaii with forensic anthropologists and other specialties, responsible for making identifications of unknowns from all conflicts in all theaters. Other labs (and supporting agencies) in the Unites States augment the efforts of our lab in Hawaii.
Our Outreach and Communications (OC) directorate is split-based in D.C. and Hawaii and communicates with the families of our MIAs, Congressional leaders and others. OC is also responsible for family member updates and our annual government briefings to the Southeast Asia families and Korea/Cold War families. The agency’s OC team also oversees our public affairs team.
Tell us about the people of DPAA.
I have a staff of just over 600 military and civilian personnel, including directors, team leaders, historians, research analysts, archivists, archaeologists, forensic anthropologists, logisticians, policy experts and support personnel. We have experienced professionals with more than 40 years in this mission, as well as young military members who rotate through as part of their standard military assignment process.
How many recovery efforts do you undertake annually?
In fiscal 2015—one of our busiest years on record—we executed nearly 100 investigation and recovery operations in 17 countries. They are preceded by the hard work done by teams of historians and analysts that explore archives, speak with veterans and validate information leading to the work in the field. It’s a team effort, one requiring long hours and dedicated professionals.
How do you prioritize missions?
Weather, terrain and logistical and operational concerns help determine the planning and staging of recoveries. DPAA also carries out technical negotiations with foreign governments to ensure positive and safe in-country conditions for our teams.
While these efforts take time, DPAA makes every effort to quickly reach sites that might be in jeopardy of environmental degradation, urbanization and environmental, regulatory or political issues that might preclude future activity.
As we move to a regional alignment, we are looking at how we prioritize our efforts, including incorporation of strategic partners and partnerships into our planning. Such partnerships allow us to expand our operations, while adding flexibility to respond and react to emerging opportunities.
How much of your budget goes toward recovery efforts?
A majority of our budget is focused on recovery efforts, but it is difficult to precisely break this out. Achieving mission success requires a collaborative effort among several DPAA components, including research and analysis, investigation and recovery operations, laboratory analysis/identifications, and outreach and communications. All of those endeavors mutually support and nest together to ensure effectiveness and efficiency and are focused on the families of our missing heroes.
How does the identification process work?
Building each case involves compiling different lines of evidence that allow our agency to describe the incident of loss and, when possible, to make an identification. The types of evidence used to make an identification include material and circumstantial evidence and archaeological, odontological, anthropological and DNA analyses.
Can DPAA achieve the goals set for it?
Congress mandated that DPAA have the capacity and capability to identify 200 MIAs per year by 2015, and although DPAA is well short of that metric, we are working hard to achieve it soon. It is important to understand however, that in addition to finding and identifying our MIAs from past conflicts, it is equally important to provide answers to family members for those we cannot find.
As a former service member, do you feel a particular sense of responsibility?
Yes, indeed. As a 35-year Army veteran, I strove to live by the Soldier’s Creed. It is 13 lines long, and each is important, but none more so than “I will never leave a fallen comrade.”
Being part of an organization responsible for returning our POWs/MIAs from past conflicts to the families that loved them is an honor and privilege, and it is a responsibility I take very seriously. MH