JPAC's critics skeptical that new POW/MIA agency will solve problems

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Dr. Alexander Christensen, a forensic anthropologist at JPAC’s Central Identification Laboratory and anthropologist Cullen Black work to piece together human remains at JPAC’s Central Identification Laboratory. (Fred W. Baker III /Dept of Defense photo)
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Dr. Alexander Christensen, a forensic anthropologist at JPAC’s Central Identification Laboratory and anthropologist Cullen Black work to piece together human remains at JPAC’s Central Identification Laboratory. (Fred W. Baker III /Dept of Defense photo)

JPAC's critics skeptical that new POW/MIA agency will solve problems

by: Matthew M. Burke | .
Stars and Stripes | .
published: January 17, 2015

CAMP FOSTER, Okinawa — The announcement that Rear Adm. Mike Franken and Maj. Gen. Kelly McKeague would be taking the reins of a consolidated POW/MIA accounting agency was lauded by defense officials as the first step in a long process to turn around the troubled command. But reaction from the MIA community has been solid and less than enthusiastic.

Advocacy groups, family members of the missing, former JPAC and DPMO employees and private researchers involved in the hunt for America’s MIAs say that the new agency looks a lot like the old ones — and that very few concrete steps have been taken in the last year to address major issues.

McKeague, the former JPAC commander, will be the interim deputy director. Many blame him for his role in JPAC’s dysfunction. Franken, a well-respected former Navy legislative director who has no accounting experience, was appointed as interim commander for the agency, which will stand up later this month.

Defense POW/Missing Personnel Office, the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command, and the Air Force Life Science Equipment Laboratory are being merged into the single agency, which has yet to be named. The agency will have a centralized budget and case-management system and promises to expand its public-private partnerships for more transparency.

There is a lot at stake in these leadership choices, announced last week.

The former agencies have been dogged by almost two years of scandal and inquest, including fake repatriation ceremonies, possible mishandling of remains, failure to embrace new technology and misleading families. In 2014, outgoing Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel ordered the reorganization into a single, more accountable agency.

But a report by the DOD inspector general in October said that poor leadership and a hostile work environment could continue to plague the mission even after the new agency’s debut.

Members of the MIA community said they were told that aspects of the new agency could take until January 2016 to be fully operational, but documents obtained by Stars and Stripes stated that key posts, such as the new medical examiner, would be filled this month.

In an October conference call with family advocacy groups and stakeholders, Hagel promised more transparency about what was happening behind the scenes. The groups say that didn’t happen, and leadership decisions were made without them.

Defense officials said there is an assessment and plan for consolidation that Franken and McKeague will implement. They declined to make it public and have not shared it with the family groups, they say. Franken and McKeague have about six months until a civilian administrator is appointed to take charge of the agency.

In the meantime, former JPAC and DPMO employees, who many blame for issues there, are still making identifications and performing field investigations.

“We’re being told again, ‘Trust us.’ They keep promising us that they’re going to get it right this time,” said Mary Ann Reitano, whose cousin was reportedly taken prisoner in Vietnam in 1966 and remains missing. “I don’t know what to believe.”

Sincere mission?

Last year, a Personnel Accounting Consolidation Taskforce was established at Hagel’s request, and management consultants The Clearing were signed to a $7 million contract, according to Defense spokesman Army Lt. Col. Joe Sowers.

The PACT — led by DOD official Alisa Stack and overseen by Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Christine Wormuth — interviewed stakeholders, families and accounting employees. But hope for real change turned to disappointment with the lack of personnel changes and transparency, some said.

Neither Stack nor Wormuth responded to requests seeking comment for this story.

“I think the PACT failed,” said Jed Henry, the driving force behind the positive identification of U.S. Army Pvt. 1st Class Lawrence Gordon after JPAC refused to have him repatriated from a German tomb in France. “They tried, but nothing good was going to come out of this unless they made wholesale changes. It’s sad, but this isn’t a sincere mission.”

Sen. Claire McCaskill, a Missouri Democrat, and Sen. Kelly Ayotte, New Hampshire Republican, were champions of the reorganization plans, and McCaskill had touted it as one of her crowning achievements of 2014. Neither responded to requests seeking comment on the recent leadership announcements by press time.

Committed to improve

The Defense Department is committed to increasing communication and making improvements to the way America accounts for its missing and unaccounted for servicemembers, Sowers said.

Ann Mills-Griffiths, chairman of the board at the nation’s most influential POW/MIA family advocacy organization, the National League of POW/MIA Families, said she was optimistic but skeptical.

“I’m more optimistic than I’ve been in years, but ... skepticism is warranted until I see the outcome,” she wrote in a statement to Stars and Stripes.

“I hope and pray, as well as expect, this team will live up to the confidence placed in them by Secretary Hagel and DOD leaders who participated in making the decisions.”

Mills-Griffiths said she has faith in the new management team and believes significant changes and results will materialize by summer.

Former JPAC investigator Rick Stone, who blew the whistle on the phony repatriation ceremonies, is not so sure.

“We’re exactly where we were three years ago,” he said. “The perception of the employees at JPAC is that this is business as usual. Nothing has changed, and they’re losing that hope that anything will change.”

burke.matt@stripes.com

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