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Honoring the Unaccounted and Missing in Action

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SOURCE: Center for American Progress

Rudy deLeon is the Senior Vice President of National Security and International Policy at American Progress.

Admiral Crisp, Colonel Sullivan, Sergeant Major Brown, Lt. Colonel Webb, Superintendent Castagnetti, and Brig. General Ishikawa, Distinguished guests, Members of the Armed Forces of the United States and their families, veterans, and the men and women that constitute the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command:

It is a distinct honor to participate in this POW/MIA ceremony. With American forces engaged in two theatres of combat, and with the exceptional sacrifice that is being asked of our service members and their families, it is appropriate that our country remember those unaccounted and missing in action and the families that maintain a respectful and faithful vigil. Those families expect that their country through its government will provide for a full accounting, and use all of the resources of the United States and bring these Americans home.

It is also a special privilege to be at this location—the Punch Bowl—which I am visiting for the first time. During my time of government service, I had the occasion to participate in ceremonies at American cemeteries at Normandy, the Marne, Argonne Forest, and most recently stood with Johnnie Webb at Arlington, remembering a Naval Aviator missing in Vietnam.

But though this is my first visit to this American cemetery, it brings back a special recollection.

In 1950, American Marines and soldiers who died while in captivity in North Korean POW camps were buried at a temporary gravesite near Hungnam, North Korea. Four years later, during "Operation Glory" which occurred from July to November 1954, remains from the Korean War were exchanged and more that 4,000 US soldiers/Marines came to Honolulu as the first stop in their repatriation. Those who could not be identified, rest here “known only to God.”

One set of remains returned from North Korea belonged to an Army Master Sergeant, Robert Dobbie of Los Angeles. He was an uncle, on my mother’s side. In the mid-1950s, support to the impacted families was not on the level and sophistication provided today. The return and identification was a “bolt from the blue,” and there were few helping hands other than the local funeral home and neighborhood VFW.

During the 1960s, that changed. As American pilots and aviators were missing, or captured and imprisoned in North Vietnam, the families of these men came together. They walked the halls of Capitol Hill, demanded regular briefings from the Pentagon, and made sure that the missing were not forgotten. Those family members formed the National League of POW-MIA Families. They created a pathway directly to America’s conscience.

Those who say you can’t bring change to Washington have never seen the National League of Families in action. They made sure that accountability for the missing stayed on the front pages, even after the troops and American POW’s came home from Vietnam. Wives, sisters, brothers, children and parents worked with Congress so that a full accounting was more than a presentation of statistics, but a vigorous campaign to locate and find answers for missing Americans with names, families, and communities waiting for their return.

I came to Capitol Hill in the 1970s, and through my time in the House of Representatives, the Armed Services Committee, and later at the Pentagon, I would come to know the families of the National League. Their hard work, persistence, and grass roots would empower their military, and their message “you are not forgotten” became a cause in every corner of America.

Through more than 30 years of my own government service, I can still remember the names and the hometowns.

There was Arthur Hardy of Ipswich, Massachusetts. An Air Force pilot shot down over Laos. When his remains came home to his native New England, I told his mother how proud her son would be of his mom: Of her steadfastness in the visits to Congress, and to the hometown paper. In searching for her son, a mother displayed her own version of the Right Stuff.

But there are other names. Bobby Jones of Georgia: missing for almost 45 years, fragments of a military ID card were recently recovered. James Mills of Bakersfield, California: Naval Aviator still missing in Vietnam. And, Scott Speicker of Jacksonville, Florida: the first casualty of the 1991 Persian Gulf War, recently recovered and returned from Iraq.

To bring these Americans home required a talent and commitment from their country and its government. That brings me to the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command, headquartered at Hickam Field in Honolulu.

JPAC’s motto “Until they are home” guides their present and future work.

An organization of 400 professionals totally dedicated to the accomplishment of accounting for America’s still missing from our nation’s conflicts.

Last year JPAC identified 80 Americans who gave their lives for our freedom. So far this year they have made almost 90 identifications.

As noted in last Sunday’s New York Times, JPAC is currently 68 missions in 14 countries and are planning to conduct 75 missions next year in 11 countries that include Vietnam, Laos, Russia, and wherever else the missing may have fallen.

This is a special day to recognize all of our POWs for their sacrifice to our nation and to honor those still missing in action. And, to recognize the families that carry their memory, and the dedicated Americans of the JPAC who offer their own tribute to the missing through their professionalism and hard work in difficult field locations.

On a personal note, I want to thank the members of JPAC and the Central Identification Laboratory for their professionalism and personal integrity a decade ago working the identification of Captain Michael Blassie, US Air Force. With the advances in science, and the meticulous research and records of the CIL, the crypt at Arlington for the Vietnam Unknown is now empty. Between a sacred shrine at Arlington and the requirement for a full accounting, there was no conflict.

That same professionalism and integrity now is being brought forward for the unknown from the Korean War.

The cemetery with the greatest number of gravesites containing unknown remains is the Punch Bowl, which is part of the Department of Veterans Affairs, National Cemetery Administration. This cemetery contains 866 remains of unidentified soldiers from the Korean War.

The records associated with each of the unknown remains are being examined, and as evidence directs, remains of Unknown Americans recovered from the Korean battlefield will be disinterred for potential identification. The Joint POW-MIA Accounting Command will direct the identification process and the actual disinterment action, which has been closely coordinated with the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific and the Department of Veterans Affairs.

And so, since those first remains came back from North Korea more than 60 years ago, there have been many changes.

In June 1964, 20 years after D-Day at Normandy, Dwight Eisenhower returned to the American Cemetery with Walter Cronkite. You can find excerpts of the interview at the National Public Radio website.

As the reporter and former President reminiscence about the invasion of France, Walter Cronkite remarked about the tranquility at their interview so contrasted with that moment on Omaha and Utah Beach when the blood, material and wealth of the nation was on display.

Amid the more than 9,000 white crosses and Stars of David that marked the “young boys who lie there,” Cronkite asked the former General and President for his recollection. Eisenhower responded that he did not want to discuss politics or patriotism. Instead he talked about the sacrifice and enormous inequity of war.

General Eisenhower’s words are worth noting. This cemetery, he said, “has a very special meaning for me.” While looking at the crosses, he explained that on the day these men came here “my own son was graduating from West Point. My own son has been very fortunate. He has had a very full life, and fathered four lovely children.”

“But these boys who lie on the path we just walked,” he continued, “were cut off in their prime and never knew the experiences of going through the kind of life that my son enjoyed. But these boys bought time for the rest of us, and gave us a chance that we could do better. So every time I come back to these beaches and remember, I think we must find some way to gain an eternal peace with this world.”

Those words constitute a hopeful message, appropriate as we honor our POW/MIAs at this ceremony. We honor our Veterans, and we honor the men and women of the Armed Forces of the United States and the civilians of the Department of Defense.

And we thank the families that stand with them. And, we thank the families that formed the National League of POW-MIA Families that touched our conscience and changed our practice. And, we thank the JPAC that will not rest until “they are all home.”

Thank you.

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