Is JPAC Missing in Action?

An internal review of the Joint Prisoners of War/Missing in Action Accounting Command (JPAC) program, created to retrieve the remains of soldiers missing from previous wars, has drawn allegations of “dysfunction” and mismanagement, according to an AP report. Retrieving and identifying remains of fallen soldiers has been a formal Department of Defense obligation since 1973.

Soldiers unaccounted for from Vietnam were JPAC’s initial focus, but its commitment has since expanded to include all soldiers unaccounted for in World War II and subsequent conflicts, including the Cold War. The numbers are staggering: 83,000 are missing in total, the vast majority, more than 70,000, from WWII.And the successes have been precious and few: Since the early 1970s, JPAC has identified or accounted for a total of 1,910 service members, 999 of them involving service in Vietnam.

Although the Pentagon has not made public the results of its review, major shortcomings of the program were evident in a mandatory review completed by the Government Accounting Office in July 2013. That report found poor organizational structure, poor integration of resources, lack of case prioritization, duplicated efforts and lack of authority to pursue leads across all areas of command.

The program may be suffering substantial growth pains due to the daunting scope of its goals, the complexity of its task and the growing array of forensic techniques, such as DNA testing and examination of dental records, skeletal remains and personal belongings. The lengthy investigations that lead researchers to excavate a particular site have also played a role.

The mission’s shortfall is most pronounced in finding remains of missing WWII vets, only about half of which are deemed recoverable.According to Ed Ross, a former director of the Defense Prisoner of War Missing Personnel Office, the sad truth is that “most of the recoverable remains have been recovered.”

Congress has demanded that JPAC increase the number of remains identified each year to 200 in 2015, a goal that seems to ignore the many variables that lead to a successful identification. In 2012, remains of 69 soldiers were identified.

War Refugees Found Living in Jungle

An 82-year-old man and his adult son were discovered living in a treehouse deep in the jungle of central Vietnam this past summer, 40 years after war drove them from their home. The father, Ho Van Thanh, allegedly fled the village of Tra Kem in shock with his then 2-year-old son Ho Van Lang after a mine exploded near their house, killing his wife and two other sons. In August locals gathering wood spotted the pair behaving oddly and called officials, who found them 25 miles in the jungle wearing only loincloths fashioned from tree bark.

Now that the pair is reunited with family members and housed, authorities face questions of whether they can force the two to live in their former village against their will. “My uncle wants to escape my house to go back to the forest, so we have to keep an eye on him now,” Thanh’s nephew, Ho Ven Bien, told the Herald Sun.

VA Finds Postwar AO Exposure

In a decision likely to have wide repercussions, the VA awarded disability benefits to Paul Bailey, a U.S. Air Force veteran who served postwar flying a C-123 that had carried out missions disseminating Agent Orange in Vietnam, according to a report in the Washington Post. The decision carries great weight because it is the first time the agency has approved benefits for postwar exposure without the veteran first pursuing approval from the Veteran Board of Appeals. Bailey, who is ill with cancer, had been denied disability benefits at a local VA center, which contended it did not have approval to grant benefits based on postwar Agent Orange exposure.

A separate story, from McClatchy news, reported evidence that manufacturers of Agent Orange were aware as early as 1964 of potentially damaging effects of exposure to dioxin in the herbicide. Both Dow and Monsanto contend they made the defoliant under federal contract and according to military instructions, however, and are thus shielded from liability.

Honor Flight Takes Vets to The Wall

A special one-time “Yellow Ribbon” Honor Flight carried a group of 115 Vietnam veterans from Wisconsin to see their memorial in Washington, D.C., on August 2—the first time the Honor Flight program has been extended to Vietnam vets. Oshkosh’s Experimental Aircraft Association hosted the flight during AirVenture 2013 as part of its Salute to Veterans activities. The flight also served to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the end of the war and to thank all Vietnam vets for supporting the Honor Flight program. Through 2012, Honor Flight has transported more than 98,500 World War II veterans, free of charge, to Washington, with many Vietnam veterans serving as escorts.

Veterans for the Yellow Ribbon flight were chosen from across the state of Wisconsin through a lottery for which there were more than 500 applicants. The participating vets received a warm welcome at Reagan National Airport and paid their respects at the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington National Cemetery. During their visit to The Wall, many were visibly overcome with emotion.

“You can see the names but you can also see your reflection in the wall. You’re with them again,” Vietnam veteran Duane Canon told Chris Hibben of Snap 180 Media, which had exclusive rights to film the event. The 23-minute documentary, Yellow Ribbon, can be viewed at www.snap180.com.

 

Originally published in the December 2013 issue of Vietnam. To subscribe, click here.