DoD Under Fire For POW MIA AccountingPhoto by Eldon Lindsay/The American Legion

America has more than 83,000 of its service members missing overseas from past wars and conflicts, making the issue of POW/MIA accounting deeply personal for thousands of families across the country awaiting the return of their missing loved ones.

However, the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) is being questioned about its mismanagement of POW/MIA accounting.

On Aug. 1, a hearing was held by the Senate Subcommittee on Financial Contracting and Oversight that focused on a report recently released by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO). GAO found DoD’s “capability and capacity to accomplish its missing persons accounting mission is being undermined by longstanding leadership weaknesses and a fragmented organizational structure.”

The American Legion submitted written testimony to the hearing, reiterating its ongoing commitment to helping achieve the fullest possible accounting for all U.S. military personnel and designated civilian personnel missing and unaccounted for from our nation’s wars.

During the hearing, Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., chair of the subcommittee, asked Maj. Gen. Kelly McKeague, Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command (JPAC) commander, and Maj. Gen. W. Montague Winfield, deputy assistant Secretary of Defense for POW/Missing Personnel Affairs, what DoD is doing to meet Congress’ mandate to increase accounting for missing military personnel.

In 2009, Congress mandated DoD to increase its 72 missing persons accounted for each year to 200 by 2015. DoD and the POW/MIA accounting community started drafting a community-wide plan to meet the accounting-for goal, but according to GAO’s report, as of July 2013 the plan had not been completed “due to a fragmented approach to planning and disputes among community members.” The report also stated that “DoD has not established mechanisms to sustain recent improvements in communication among community members” and that “DoD has not established criteria to prioritize potentially recoverable missing persons from conflicts besides the Vietnam War.”

In his testimony, McKeague discussed JPAC’s efforts of operating more efficiently and effectively.

“JPAC instituted an Investigation Decision Board, which provides greater command oversight and ensures cross-functional coordination for all investigation missions,” McKeague said. “Since FY 2010, using this process, more than 40 sites have been added to our excavation list from our investigations in Europe.

“In October 2012, JPAC reorganized internally to create efficiencies to better align functions, and delineate roles and responsibilities. This has improved interaction within JPAC and our work with the Defense Prisoner of War/Missing Personnel Office.

“We have conducted 80 missions in FY 2013, an increase of 18 percent from our average.”

According to Winfield, the POW/MIA accounting community has made “a significant stride in improving our unity of effort, but this is an issue that clearly needs further work,” he said. “Fortunately, the GAO has helped us identify, in a thorough and objective manner, what the department needs to do to improve our performance of the sacred mission of accounting for our missing personnel.”

GAO’s report made recommendations to DoD on ways to improve POW/MIA accounting, such as reorganization, clarification of responsibilities and priorities, improvements with planning and guidance, and identification of ways to sustain communication between the various mission commands.

“The families and our key external partners are as determined as ever to help us improve the way we account for our missing personnel, and just as importantly, to help us improve how we provide answers to their questions,” Winfield said.

If the results of GAO’s report are true, American Legion National Commander James E. Koutz said it’s “unacceptable.” For Koutz, the POW/MIA issue is a personal one. A Vietnam War veteran, he returned to that Southeast Asia recently and witnessed recovery and identification work being done on an apparent American F-4 Phantom fighter-bomber crash site. Koutz lauded the labor being done there to recover artifacts and identify the crewmembers of the fallen aircraft. He does not want this kind of good work compromised by command inefficiencies.

“We, as a nation, owe it to the families of the missing to do everything possible to achieve the fullest accounting of our missing service members,” Koutz said. “This effort should not be slowed by internal conflicts, bureaucratic bickering and mismanaged taxpayer dollars.

These families have suffered enough grief and uncertainty for decades. It’s time to bring the 83,000 heroes home.”

McCaskill concluded the hearing by assigning Winfield and McKeague a task that must be accomplished quickly and successfully — a community-wide plan to meet the accounting-for goal and the reorganization of this effort.