POW/MIA groups criticize U.S. efforts

July 24, 2011

A coalition of groups representing veterans and the families of missing U.S. service members has accused the Defense Department of undercutting a joint U.S.-Russian program that seeks answers to the fate of Americans who disappeared behind the Iron Curtain.

The U.S.-Russia Joint Commission on POW/MIAs, established in 1992, has given investigators from the United States access to Russia’s central military archives and opportunities to interview potential eyewitnesses about U.S. service members who may have perished in the former Soviet Union or the territory of its allies during World War II, Korea, Vietnam and the Cold War.

“After nine months of broken promises, we cannot sit quietly and allow senior officials in the Department of Defense to redirect funding, transfer researchers and linguists and jeopardize any possibility of mission success for the U.S.-Russia Joint Commission on POW/MIAs,” the coalition stated in an editorial released this month.

The issue was addressed Friday at the National League of POW/MIA Families national meeting in Crystal City, but Defense Department officials attending the conference did not satisfy concerns raised by the veterans groups, according to Ann Mills-Griffiths, executive director of the league.

“Other than to say the overall accounting mission will continue to do the most with what it has, their responses did not answer our questions or shed any new light into the direction [the Defense Department] may be taking,” said Joe Davis, spokesman for the Veterans of Foreign Wars, one of the groups that signed the editorial.

In a June 29 memo shortly before leaving office, Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates directed “a reassessment of what is minimally required” to increase the capacity of the POW/MIA accounting community.

“Our concern is very much about the undercutting of the Joint Commission,” Mills-Griffiths said.

Air Force Maj. Carie Parker, a spokeswoman for the Defense POW/Missing Personnel Office, said Friday that the Pentagon is working with the National Security Council “to ensure that the department provides the appropriate support to the commission.”

No funding to support the commission has been cut “to date,” said Parker, adding that she was unaware of plans to do so. “The mission continues,” she said.

Parker noted that funding for the division that supports the commission has increased 14 percent over the last six years. She said that while two research analysts in the division have been transferred to a new World War II section, they are “doing the same exact job.”

The veterans’ coalition editorial said that a failure to fully support the commission “will make it nearly impossible for our government to locate information and/or remains to help determine the fates of hundreds, if not thousands, of Americans who may have perished in the former Soviet Union or in the lands of their allies during World War II, Korea, Vietnam and the Cold War.”

Other groups signing the editorial include the American Legion, Disabled American Veterans, Vietnam Veterans of America, Marine Corps League, American Veterans and Jewish War Veterans of the U.S.A.

The number of service members or civilians missing and unaccounted for include 78,000 from World War II, 8,000 from Korea, 1,680 from Vietnam, 120 from the Cold War, and one each from Iraq and Afghanistan.

Steve Vogel is a reporter for the national staff of The Washington Post who covers the federal government and frequently writes about the military and veterans.
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