A woman sits across from her father as tears begin to stream down her cheeks. She opens a small box and pulls out a photo of her dad in his uniform and inhales deeply — she’s been waiting for this moment her entire life. She exhales.
“This is the first time I’ve ever met him,” she said to the gentleman who escorted her into the private viewing room to see the remains of her father. “Thank you for finally bringing him home.”
“Fulfilling our nation’s promise” is the motto of the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, located at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Hawaii. Its mission — “To provide the fullest possible accounting for our missing personnel from past conflicts to their families and the nation.”
“It’s fulfilling a promise to the families, but it’s also fulfilling a promise to everyone who wears a uniform or everyone who has worn a uniform,” said U.S. Navy Rear Adm. Jon C. Kreitz, DPAA deputy director. “If you are killed in action and we can’t just get you out right then and there, we’re going to come looking for you and get you home. That matters to the families and it matters to your buddies that you’re fighting with. In many ways, it’s very uniquely American that we do this to the degree that we do and quite frankly, I am proud of the fact that we don’t leave fallen comrades behind.”
Though their mission statement is short and sweet, the work that goes into finding those who are unaccounted for is anything but. It can take years of intense research, interviewing witnesses, and digging through archives and historical records before a team even places a foot in any site to begin the strenuous process of recovering remains from a particular location.
Throughout history, Americans have been compelled to bring their loved ones home from a war or conflict, mentioned Kreitz. It was never something that was required, it was just something that was done — until 2011 when the military was tasked by law to seek and bring service members home from all past conflicts dating back to World War II.
Before DPAA was formed in 2015, there were three separate DoD organizations performing different functions of the accounting mission. Occasionally, they worked seamlessly together; however, being separate organizations made working together difficult. In 2015, the Secretary of Defense chose to merge all three organizations into one unified agency, which enabled DoD to increase its capabilities and capacity for the accounting mission.
“The average number of Americans who were being identified each year was less than 50,” Kreitz mentioned. “DPAA now has everything under one roof and one command. We have the historians, the analysts, the investigators, recovery teams, the scientific analysis — it all falls under us in one team, so we can work together.”
The first full year DPAA was operating, they identified 164 Americans. In 2017, there were 201 and in 2018, 206 identifications were made.
“As a cohesive team, we push ourselves to do better each year,” Kreitz said. “Our goal is to identify at least 350 people a year and we’re going to get there because we have a good team that’s going to get us there.”
There are currently more than 82,000 Americans missing all over the world. Of those, DPAA is focused on the research, investigation, recovery and identification for approximately 34,000 cases the agency believes are possibly recoverable from World War II, the Korean War, the Cold War, the Vietnam War, Iraq, and other designated past conflicts.
Of those who are lost, 75 percent are located in the Indo-Pacific region. Ninety percent of DPAA’s missions originate out of Hawaii, making Pacific Air Forces aircraft – like the 15th Wing’s C-17 Globemaster IIIs, based out of Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam – essential to DPAA’s mission.
“PACAF assets provide us with 90 percent of our military air transport,” Krietz said. “We have a great relationship with them and it’s something we are deeply appreciative of.”
The 600-member DPAA team consists of equal parts military and civilian, and each individual brings a necessary skillset for DPAA to perform its mission globally.
“We have combat medics, explosive ordnance disposal technicians, life support equipment specialists, field communications, forensic photographers, linguists, trained mountaineers, dive teams, forensic anthropologists and archaeologists, and much, much more,” Kreitz said, beaming with pride. “We have such incredibly skilled professionals who work here and they are all passionate and invested in this mission. You can’t help but be passionate about it. It’s such a noble mission.”
DPAA also enlists the help of other service members to perform a Short-term Individual Augmentation Tour, and hundreds of individuals are allocated each year for a single mission. Last year DPAA had roughly 150 teams in 36 different countries, making those who volunteer their time critical to mission success.
“I tell every one of them before they go, ‘when you come back, I’ll meet you at the tarmac and I’ll bet you are going to be tired, and dirty, but you are going to have a big smile on your face because you are coming back from something you are going to remember for the rest of your life as one of the most amazing, greatest missions you have ever done,’” Kreitz smiled. “And I have yet to be disproved of that, and I don’t think I ever will.”
Some sites can be easy to get to but others are on the side of a mountain, in the ocean, or in rice fields where a person may stand in knee-deep water all day, every day. A dig site might happen to be near a hotel, but generally they are in remote locations where there isn’t any running water and you can’t shower for 45 days. It’s not a glamorous job but even then, Kreitz said, “Everyone comes back with a huge smile on their face because of what they did. They get the chance to see things that others might only see in a history book.”
Whether they’re hiking up a mountainside with gear on their back and nothing but a harness keeping them from rolling down the side of a cliff, or trekking in pouring rain through the creature-filled jungle, nothing will deter the men and women of DPAA from accomplishing their mission. They are persistent and they persevere through any situation or challenge. Why?
“It’s about bringing more people home to their families,” Kreitz smiled.
Families are being reunited with loved ones who have been lost for decades because of the tireless work of DPAA. They continue to dig through mountains of records in the national archives, or fly thousands of miles to another country in order to speak to a possible witness. They spend months, or even years, at one particular site sifting through dirt, mud, sand, and gravel in order to ensure they don’t miss a detail. The process of locating, recovering, identifying and returning home Americans is a long process, a process in which we will go more in depth in the next article in this series on DPAA.