Time to Clean House at J-PAC?


Respectfully submitted by Lawrence E. Rafferty (rafflaw)-Weekend Contributor

As the son of a fallen Air Force pilot whose remains were never found, I am sensitive to the plight of family members of servicemen and women whose remains may be recoverable, but yet are still not identified.  There are multiple military and defense department agencies who are responsible for locating and identifying the remains of veterans from World War II, Korea and Vietnam and Cold War missions.

The purpose of this article is to examine the efforts of just one of those agencies.  The Joint Prisoners of War/Missing in Action Accounting Command, or J-PAC, is an example of an agency that is crucial to both locating and identifying remains, but because of bureaucratic constraints, outdated methods and the possible stubbornness of its scientific head, has produced very little results at a very expensive cost to the taxpayers.

“The Pentagon spends about $100 million a year to find men like Bud, following the ethos of “leave no man behind.” Yet it solves surprisingly few cases, hobbled by overlapping bureaucracy and a stubborn refusal to seize the full potential of modern forensic science. Last year, the military identified just 60 service members out of the about 83,000 Americans missing from World War II, Korea and Vietnam, around 45,000 of whom are considered recoverable.

At the center of the military’s effort is a little-known agency, the Joint Prisoners of War/Missing in Action Accounting Command, or J-PAC, and its longtime scientific director, Tom Holland. He alone assesses whether the evidence J-PAC has assembled is sufficient to identify a set of remains: A body goes home only if he signs off.

Over Holland’s 19-year tenure, J-PAC has stuck with an outdated approach that relies primarily on historical and medical records even as others in the field have turned to DNA to quickly and reliably make identifications.

Though finding missing service members can be difficult — some were lost deep in Europe’s forests, others in Southeast Asia’s jungles — Holland’s approach has stymied efforts to identify MIAs even when the military already knows where they are. More than 9,400 service members are buried as “unknowns” in American cemeteries around the world. Holland’s lab has rejected roughly nine out of every 10 requests to exhume such graves. “ ProPublica

The aforementioned ProPublica article reviews the case of a WWII veteran, Arthur “Bud” Kelder,  whose cousin, John Eakin was able to determine the likely grave site location, but J-PAC has refused to exhume the remains.  The very same J-PAC that is inclined to use archival information instead of DNA, refused to accept the wealth of archival information that a relative of the fallen WWII hero had provided to J-PAC, and order an exhumation of a grave site that was known to the agency.

That requested exhumation could produce DNA to confirm the archival information.  The relative is currently in litigation in an attempt to force J-PAC to do their job.With the command failing to meet the standards required by Congress, it is surprising that any scientific director would still be on the job.  Generals have come and gone, but the scientific director is still entrenched and the Secretary of Defense, Chuck Hagel has ordered a review of the efforts to locate and identify remains.

“In recent years, J-PAC and the other agencies responsible for the MIA program have come under intensifying scrutiny. In 2010, when Congress added World War II to J-PAC’s mission, it mandated at least 200 identifications overall a year by 2015 — a benchmark the agency has already said it will not meet. The problems, including those of DNA, go beyond J-PAC. Last month, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel ordered a review of how the military manages the effort.” ProPublica

While agencies like J-PAC have a very difficult job and it is important that they get the job right, doing nothing does not equal progress.  Time is of the essence here for the WWII missing especially, since DNA sources are literally dying off.

When we had a memorial service for my Father on March 26th, 2012, my contact person at Dover Air Force base who had set up and made the arrangements for the service, collected DNA from me and my siblings.  This DNA may be critically important if remains are ever found.

It concerns me greatly that the families of missing veterans who have archival evidence of the location of their family members remains continue to be snubbed.  The families of Veterans of all wars and all Cold War missions need to be able to rely on the long heralded theme that we never leave out fallen on the battlefield.

I recommend the Missing Patriot website for any who are interested in the ProPublica series on this important subject.  I am hopeful that the review ordered by Sec. Hagel will produce sweeping recommendations and substantive actions to change the culture at agencies like J-PAC and if necessary, change personnel that refuse to answer to the families.

The families of the fallen deserve the best this country can do to find and identify their relatives.  It is immoral to allow grieving families to suffer any longer than necessary.

What recommendations do you have for Sec. Hagel and J-PAC?


“The views expressed in this posting are the author’s alone and not those of the blog, the host, or other weekend bloggers.  As an open forum, weekend bloggers post independently without pre-approval or review. Content and any displays or art are solely their decision and responsibility.”

23 thoughts on “Time to Clean House at J-PAC?”

  1. Time to Clean House at J-PAC?

    Cleaning house at JPAC only addresses a symptom (the interment of remains) of the larger problem which is needlessly sending our loved ones overseas to fight and die in elective wars based wholly upon lies.

    If we revoke our consent for the US government to continue speciously sacrificing our service people on the almighty altar of greed/power there would be no remains of American service people to inter, no shattered and broken soldiers, marines, airmen and sailors to put back together again (although there are no prostheses for amputated souls) and no grieving families awaiting their loved ones return and of course no need for JPAC or any of it’s alphabet acronym brethren.

  2. Thanks AY.
    Bill H. I think you are correct that someone thinks he owns the lab.

  3. Sounds like Holland has created a personal feifdom, which is by definition an anethama in governmental matters.

  4. Dredd,
    I think there may be only one or two DNA labs that contract with JPAC. Some of the problem may be related to people trying to keep their jobs and contacts with JPAC.

  5. Larry:

    It sounds like their lab is what is refered to as “serialized” and is a choke point for the department’s mission. What that means is there are only a few lab techs/facilities to handle DNA and it bottlenecks the entire system. If that is the case what they need to do is make their operation as “parallel” to the amount of DNA requests as come through; generally by opening up more DNA testing subsystems. It is like a plumbing system where a big tank drains slowly by a narrow pipe. Larger pipes in greater numbers drain the tank faster.

    This is often a problem with some government agencies especially state ones. They have chokepoints where core sub-systems that process many transactions are hindered by under-staffing because many people are devoted to maintain bereaucracy. The worst situation is when individuals get tasked with the process and when the individual is sick or on vacation the production comes to a halt. One of my biggest complaints of having to deal as a small business owner was being referred to an individual at a state agency rather than a department. I spent half of my time tracking down and co-ordinating with the individual whereas if a department handled everything as a whole it would have worked out more efficiently.

  6. other than finding out grandma was paying the iceman by the piece, I don’t understand why he would object to dna evidence.

  7. raff,
    That is the whole idea. I also hear Adak is nice….or the Pribilof Islands.

    Where is the Pribilof Islands was a Jeopardy answer once. I knew because my son was there at the time. You can look them up on Google Earth. I am sure they have many artifacts an OCD archeologist can examine…..after he cleans the bird poop off.

  8. This appears to be an example of the Peter Principle at work. Wonder how Holland ending up running the place? He probably can’t be fired, so maybe they could send him to Chicken to monitor the water there.

  9. Thanks Darren. As I understand it, the real problem is with the lab, not the entire agency. Hopefully, the review ordered by Sec. Hagel will understand where the logjam is and who is causing it.

  10. From a cost / benefit basis this agency is terribly inefficient, spending over $1,666,666.00 per person identified.

    For the money being budgeted the agency could do some truly amazing work especially in identifying the unknowns for simply restructuring its operations. They could spend the next two years or so with a great effort to sequence the DNA of the unknowns, exhuming one cemetery at a time for efficiency and accuracy purposes. Then at the same time states side they could start collecting the DNA from relatives and some old fashion detective work. The results could be merged together and I am confident if both sides of the data were accurately collected they could expect to achieve 10,000 matches per year.

    It isn’t that difficult from an organizational standpoint to do this, especially given the amount of budget afforded them. It would require the purchase of a very large and well staffed DNA lab or two. If there were some startup costs I doubt there would be much resistence from Congress if it would be well studied.

    I know this would require much restructuring of the current department staff and mission wise but it needs to be more effective and getting significantly better results is very achievable.

    Thanks Larry

  11. I read somewhere that if the government was in charge of the Sahara desert in less than 5 years they would be out of sand. They also don’t want to work himself out of a job that’s the government way.

  12. The risk of cross-contamination of DNA specimens is very low if they do it right. Obviously, anything exposed to the elements, such as clothing or soft tissue has to be suspect. Normally, DNA from old remains are best found in marrow of the big bones, such as the femur. If that is unusable, then the pulp of teeth are a good source. Tooth enamel protects DNA much better than even bone and can last for centuries. For example, positive identification of members of the Romanov royal family were made almost a century after they were murdered. Even the mystery of what happened to Anastasia was solved.

    There is no excuse, and I do not begrudge a penny spent if the agency needs to be enlarged and more experts brought in to break the backlog.

  13. I don’t begrudge a penny the agency spends. But I am surprised at how the little results. And I don’t understand the reluctance for more extensive use of modern techniques such as DNA testing.

    ” Holland’s lab has rejected roughly nine out of every 10 requests to exhume such graves.”

    One suggested objection to DNA testing was that the test might be inconclusive due to the presence of DNA from several individuals. But DNA testing could eliminate that grave from further consideration if the Subject’s DNA were not present. And DNA testing could prove conclusive if the presence of only one individual were detected.

    Based on the article, there seems to be great reluctance to disinter based on the presumed feelings of the family. But if the grave is of an unknown (the only kind that would require testing) then the reluctance to disinter and test due to the feelings of the family would seem to be greatly reduced.

    If the grave is of an unknown then who could reasonable object to the disinterment? And if the tests lead to the identification of an unknown why would the family be anything but grateful?

    The reluctance to disinter and test the graves of unknowns does not seem to be reasonably justified.

  14. Raff,
    I heard this being discussed on the radio. I was unaware of the intransigence of Dr. Holland. I did a little digging with Google. There are a bunch of self-congratulatory articles and his biography. He says they solve about 100 cases a year. That is an unacceptable number, given the tens of thousands of missing or as yet unidentified remains in their possession.

    From the several articles I read, he is scared to death he might make a mistake. I know people like that. They are on the opposite end of the psychological spectrum from people like Dr. Steven Hayne who was discussed here a few days ago. If Holland has OCD that is getting in the way of doing his job, you are right. It is time for a housecleaning.

    I figured from your article he was some old fud who graduated years ago, but see that he got his PhD in 1991. There. Is. No. Excuse.

Comments are closed.