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example of an agency that is crucial to both locating and identifying remains, but because of bureaucratic constraints, outdated methods and the possible stubbornness of its scientific head, has produced very little results at a very expensive cost to the taxpayers.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Over Holland’s 19-year tenure, J-PAC has stuck with an outdated approach that relies primarily on historical and medical records even as others in the field have turned to DNA to quickly and reliably make identifications.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?


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

  1. When I initially commented I appear to have
    clicked the -Notify me when new comments are added- checkbox and now whenever a comment
    is added I recieve four emails with the exact same comment.
    Perhaps there is an easy method you can remove me from that service?

    Thank you!

  2. Elaine,
    I had seen this article. Thanks. Unfortunately, It is not the first time that Americans have resorted to international assistance to reclaim their family members remains because of the refusal of J-PAC and US authorities to follow current scientific methods to identify so-called “unknowns”.

  3. rafflaw,

    I was wondering if you had seen this article:

    French, Germans Return Fallen GI After Pentagon Gives Up
    For more than 50 years, Army PFC Lawrence S. Gordon was mistakenly interred as a German soldier in a cemetery in France. Then European officials did what the U.S. military would not, exhumed and identified him with DNA.
    by Megan McCloskey
    March 21, 2014

    U.S. Army Private First Class Lawrence S. Gordon — killed in Normandy in 1944, then mistakenly buried as a German soldier — will soon be going home to his family.

    But don’t thank the American military for this belated return. The Pentagon declined to act on his case, despite exhaustive research by civilian investigators that pointed to the location of his remains.

    Instead, Gordon’s family and advocates used the same evidence to persuade French and German officials to exhume Gordon and identify him through DNA testing. That’s right: the relatives of this U.S. soldier, who fought against the Germans, are relying on Germany to bring him back home.

    Gordon’s case is another example of breakdowns in the American system for finding and identifying tens of thousands of missing service members from past conflicts. More than 9,400 troops are buried as “unknowns” in American cemeteries around the world. Yet, as ProPublica and NPR recently reported, the Joint Prisoners of War/Missing in Action Accounting Command (J-PAC) rarely disinters any of those men to try to use DNA to identify them. On average, just 4 percent of such cases move forward.

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