WASHINGTON — A Senate subcommittee review Thursday of the military commands that oversee finding and bringing home the remains of long-lost troops made it clear there are deep problems.
The process is poor. The results are lacking. The infighting among those involved was likened to “the bickering of 5-year-olds” by Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., chairwoman of the Senate subcommittee on Financial and Contracting Oversight.
Described by all as a “sacred duty,” committee member Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., said pointedly: “Those who have made the ultimate sacrifice, and their families, deserve better.”
Scouring the globe for missing service members is expensive.
In 2012, the budget for searching for the remains of the estimated 83,000 U.S. military service personnel who vanished during overseas operations from World War II through the Korean, Vietnam and Cold wars grew by $50 million to $132 million. Over the last five years, total funding has hit about $500 million. Congress approved the additional money for remains recovery to increase the pace of identifications from about 72 a year to 200 a year by 2015, a goal that those who head the efforts said was “probably unrealistic.”
Maj. Gen. Kelly McKeague, who heads the Joint POW-MIA Accounting Command, or JPAC, instead said realistic increases would be about 10 percent a year, raising the total to about 120 a year within five years.
In response, McCaskill warned: “In the current fiscal environment, the gentlemen must understand that if the results don’t improve, the money will go away.”
McCaskill and Ayotte focused on the estimated 40,000 of the missing who “vanished in deep water during World War II.” Officials from the commands appeared to agree that families of those who died at sea deserved to know the fate of their loved ones. But retired Maj. Gen. W. Montague Winfield, head of the Defense Prisoner of War/Missing Personnel Office, noted that each person who vanished at sea needed a separate case and a separate investigation that made a seemingly simple process become unavoidably time consuming.
Recent news reports focused on an internal report that called the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command “acutely dysfunctional” and in risk of “total collapse.” That report was suppressed by the former head of JPAC before it was leaked to the Associated Press, and McCaskill said that the points it raised were worrying. But she added that she had been contacted by enough people from the commands about that report that she had come to believe it was more a symptom of a greater problem than an expose of problems within the organizations. McCaskill said it appeared the report was called for by one command in order to make others look bad.
The heads of JPAC and the Defense Prisoner of War/Missing Personnel Office, however, stressed that in recent months they have talked to coordinate efforts on a daily basis.
McCaskill advised the commanders that they should return next time with concrete answers or “get used to this room,” as there would be more and more hearings on how to fix the process.
“We cannot put a price tag on this mission,” McCaskill said. “But we can and must ensure that hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars are being spent as efficiently and effectively as possible.”