The work of the Hawaii-based Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command (JPAC) is not about establishing the truth, if any, behind urban mythical tales of Vietnam War prisoners languishing in bamboo cells four decades after war's end. It is about reuniting fallen heroes with their families. JPAC's solemn but highly interesting mission was the focus of the Military Funeral Honors & POW/MIA Update session at The American Legion National Convention in Milwaukee this week.
The meeting began, as always, with the Legion's traditional POW/MIA "empty table" ceremony. The tribute visibly affected JPAC's commander, Maj. Gen. Stephan D. Tom, who spoke of his command's mission. It is, he said, "to achieve the fullest possible accounting of all Americans missing as a result of the nation's past conflicts." According to Gen. Tom, 88,000 families are awaiting the return of the fallen warrior loved ones. The largest number of missing - 78,000 - is from, predictably, the largest conflict in our history, World War II. However, 8,100 war fighters are still unaccounted for from the Korean War, 1,800 from Vietnam and 120 from the Cold War. There is only one unknown from the Gulf War and none since.
Tom introduced a 16-minute video that detailed the work of his command. It's a fascinating multidisciplinary blend of archeology, forensic medicine and Sherlock Holmesian detection. The video presentation details the tasks required from the discovery of fragmentary remains, perhaps from a remote Pacific jungle, through the highly technical and often complex identification process, to notification of the fallen warrior's family and the deservedly honored interment of that hero. To date, more than 1,800 heretofore missing soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines have been returned home by the efforts of JPAC. In about 70 percent of the cases, said Tom, DNA has played a significant role in positive ID of remains. Naturally, a DNA match can only be made if a sample from a surviving family member is available to the JPAC team. This is why they encourage families of missing service members from World War II on to submit what the forensic detective call an FRS (Family Reference Sample). "It's just a sample from your mouth on a cotton swab," explained Tom. "It's very easy and totally painless to get." JPAC utilizes a special type of DNA called Mitochondrial DNA, or mtDNA. "It is inherited only from the mother," explained Tom, "and is used because it is long-lasting, abundant, and doesn't change much from generation to generation." Instructions for obtaining and submitting a DNA sample to JPAC are posted on the command's Web site.
While learning the fate of MIA war fighters is the prime work of JPAC, POWs are not forgotten. In fact, JPAC's mission statement notes "the highest priority of the organization is the return of any living Americans that remain prisoners of war." However, says JPAC, "to date, the U.S. Government has not found any evidence that there are still American POWs in captivity from past U.S. conflicts."