With Congressional pressure and media scrutiny intensifying, the defense secretary came out with a bold plan to fix the Pentagon's struggling mission to recover remains of missing service members: reorganize the effort into a new agency.
"This new organization provides an efficient management structure for pursuing our goal of obtaining the fullest possible accounting for all missing Americans. Resolving POW/MIA issues is of the highest national priority and we will continue to work vigorously toward this end."
Those remarks easily could have come from Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel last month when he announced just such a change. But they were actually made two decades ago, by then-Secretary of Defense Les Aspin when the Pentagon first tried restructuring the bureaucracy as a way to solve troubling issues with the effort. Another consolidation, accompanied by similar rhetoric, happened in 2003.
The Pentagon spends about $100 million annually to recover and identify missing service members from the Vietnam War, Korean War, and World War II, but identified just 60 last year—far short of the 200 per year mandated by Congress starting next year. A ProPublica and NPR investigation found that the mission was hampered by outdated science, overlapping bureaucracy, and poor leadership.
"Any time you have a change that is truly philosophical it's very difficult to accomplish that if the people being tasked with it still believe in the old ways of doing things."
On March 31, Hagel said that the two major agencies in charge—the Joint Prisoners of War/Missing in Action Accounting Command, or J-PAC, and the Defense Prisoners of War and Missing Personnel Office, or DPMO—would be consolidated into one to streamline the inefficient, duplicative process.
This latest restructuring is the broadest one yet, taking on the science used to make identifications and creating public-private partnerships, but it's unclear whether it will be a reorganization just on paper like it was in the past. Indeed, the two long-troubled, soon-to-be combined agencies, J-PAC and DPMO, are themselves the product of the earlier consolidations.
Critics on Capitol Hill, in family advocacy groups, and among former employees of the agencies all said that in order to have meaningful, lasting impact the changes must go beyond bureaucratic reshuffling to instead include new leadership.
"Any time you have a change that is truly philosophical it's very difficult to accomplish that if the people being tasked with it still believe in the old ways of doing things," Commander Renee Richardson, a former DPMO staffer, said.
Given the "stories we're being told, there definitely should be some people who are fired," Senator Claire McCaskill, who was one of the vocal critics on the Hill, said in an interview earlier this year.
Acting Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Michael Lumpkin, who is spearheading the changes, said at the time of the announcement that the new agency will be fundamentally new and different, ridding the effort of "outdated, institutionalized thinking."
But asked if anyone was being held accountable for the problems that led to the need for changes, Lumpkin referred to a "structurally flawed" system rather than leadership.
The agencies' current leaders might stay a part of the new as-yet-unnamed agency. Although the positions of DPMO director and J-PAC commander will disappear along with the organizations when the new agency is formed in the next 18 months, Lumpkin said, the people who held those positions "may be reclaimed" in the new organization.
The only personnel changes that have been announced are a director for the new agency who will report to the under secretary of defense for policy and an Armed Forces Medical Examiner who will be in charge of making identifications and overseeing the scientific operations of the lab. The latter strips Tom Holland, J-PAC's longtime scientific director, of his primary authority, but Lumpkin wouldn't comment on whether Holland would be a part of the new agency.
ProPublica and NPR reported that under Holland's leadership, the laboratory has not used DNA as the first step in identifying remains, even though DNA has been the centerpiece of similar efforts worldwide for more than a decade.
Lumpkin did say that Hagel was putting the director of the new agency under the Office of the Secretary of Defense because he wanted someone he could hold accountable for the mission's responsibilities—what Lumpkin called "a single belly button."
The civilian leadership of DPMO and J-PAC has been entrenched for decades. Holland has been there since 1992. Johnie Webb, the deputy commander for external relations, has been with J-PAC since 1983. The current director of DPMO, retired Brigadier General W. Montague "Que" Winfield, was the first commander of J-PAC.
Complicating matters, for years J-PAC and DPMO have battled each other for territory, authority, and responsibility.
Ann Mills-Griffith, founder of the lobbying group National League of POW/MIA Families, described the infighting as "destructive bickering."
"It's such a noble mission ... every person wants the same thing," said current J-PAC commander General Kelly McKeague. "Where it breaks down—and this is where I shake my head—is the 'how.'"
There was also feuding within J-PAC. There have been dozens of complaints about management and a hostile work environment—and employees who left with cash settlements.
With the struggle to make more identifications, Mark Leney, a former J-PAC anthropologist, said it's hard to discern what "are technical difficulties of a unique mission to execute and what are ordinary issues of poor management."
The Pentagon's inspector general is investigating problems with the MIA effort, an inquiry that, according to several people who have been interviewed for it, is expected to address management and leadership issues.
The new agency will also face questions about mission priorities.
The Pentagon has long focused its recovery efforts on troops missing from the Vietnam War, a decision that experts say might not be the best use of its resources now. In fiscal year 2013, for example, J-PAC spent 65 percent of its field mission budget in Southeast Asia, but identified just nine Vietnam veterans.
In part, this is because the soil in Southeast Asia is so acidic it eats away at bones, essentially dissolving them. Several current and former J-PAC scientists have said that time might have run out there—there just may not be bones left to find.
Still, it remains politically delicate to cross advocates for Vietnam vets, some of whom have accused the government of covering up the existence of live POWs.
Mills-Griffiths, the most prominent and well-connected advocate for those missing from Vietnam, has long pushed to keep Vietnam at the forefront of MIA recovery efforts. Hagel personally thanked her at his press conference announcing the reorganization, and many of its features were recommended by her.
In a memo to Hagel, Mills-Griffiths blamed J-PAC's decision to not increase field operations in Vietnam in part on a "misplaced focus by some on remains recoveries related to WWII as a means of increasing the number of IDs."
Lisa Phillips, founder of WWII Families for the Return of the Missing, said, "We want exactly as Congress mandated. The fullest possible accounting of all POW MIA services members, regardless of the circumstances of the loss."
Mills-Griffiths, whose brother is among the missing from Vietnam, has said the MIA effort was started for Vietnam vets, so families from other wars need "to stand in line"—raising the ire of advocates for World War II and Korean War veterans. But she has also said it isn't a competition. Efforts on behalf of one war's veterans shouldn't be at the expense of others, she said.
Some families of troops missing in Southeast Asia have fought the disinterment of almost 10,000 troops buried as unknown casualties of the Korean War and World War II. That discord led to a 2009 DPMO memo saying that exhuming the graves of unknowns and using DNA to try to identify them should take a back seat to finding remains of service members still lost on the battlefield.
Lumpkin said the new agency would pursue more disinterments, but didn't provide any details. J-PAC currently only exhumes remains in about four percent of the cases in which such a step is recommended. The average disinterment costs about $1,000—significantly less than field operations.
Some families of missing troops from World War II and their advocates are hoping they will benefit from the move to embrace public-private partnerships, which could free their loved ones' cases from the government's grasp and allow them to move forward faster.
This post originally appeared on ProPublica as “Big Revamp of Pentagon's Troubled Mission to Find Missing Soldiers Looks a Lot Like Old Revamp” and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.