By Don Vaughan

Recovering, identifying, and returning home American servicemembers lost in action around the world is a difficult mission. But the rate of identifications, as well as the number of previously missing persons accounted for, has increased in recent years as a result of new Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA) policies and improved technology.

To date in FY 2017, DPAA, formerly the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command, has made 114 identifications and accounted for 93, reports Maj. Jessie Romero, public affairs officer, DPAA, Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Hawaii. In FY 2016, DPAA identified 164 U.S. servicemembers and civilians and accounted for 160.

“The increase is due to a variety of new programs implemented by the agency, coupled with scientific advances,” Romero confirms. “Specifically, the program for disinterring and identifying service[members] previously considered unidentifiable - buried as unknowns in national cemeteries - has been the key factor in the increase. Scientific advances in the DPAA Laboratory and the Armed Forces DNA Identification Laboratory have made it possible to identify remains that could not be identified five years ago.”

Other contributing factors include:

  • development and implementation of an overarching strategy, a five-year campaign plan, and annual operations plans;
  • a dedicated medical examiner assigned to DPAA;
  • establishment of a strategic partnering effort to more efficiently and effectively research, conduct analysis, and recover the missing; and
  • improved relationships and information sharing with host-nation personnel.

Ongoing is the recovery and identification of American personnel killed during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. According to Romero, an estimated 1,553 servicemembers have yet to be accounted for and their remains might still be among the unknowns interred in the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Honolulu or entombed aboard USS Arizona. From July to November 2015, DPAA disinterred 388 sets of remains from the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, killed while serving on USS Oklahoma. To date, Romero notes, 70 of those sailors and Marines have been identified and accounted for. 

“TheUSS Oklahoma case is a significant project within the DPAA Laboratory, with dedicated personnel and a project leader,” Romero says. “However, it is one of many laboratory projects. The DPAA Laboratory does no prioritize by conflict, service, or any other extraneous factors. We need to identify all remains that enter the laboratory.”

Locating and recovering remains of the missing is still the greatest challenge facing DPAA, Romero says. “The failures to find the recent Malaysian Airlines aircraft or even Amelia Earhart are poignant reminders of how difficult it can be to find someone who has disappeared,” he says. “Laboratory challenges include the need to test small fragments of bone, poor survival of DNA after many decades in the field, and missing antemortem information, such as lack of DNA family reference samples.”

Adding to the difficulty is the fact that many of the missing were lost behind enemy lines and what became enemy territory during the Cold War. “Significant time lapsed before it was possible to search these area,” Romero explains. “Some service personnel were lost at high altitudes, in sparsely populated areas, or over water.”Currently, 82,524 U.S. personnel/Americans still are unaccounted for from World War II to operations in Iraq, Romero reports. An estimated 34,000 are believed recoverable.