Recovering and Accounting for Prisoners of War and Missing Personnel

By Erstfeld, Thomas E. | Joint Force Quarterly, Spring 2002 | Go to article overview

Recovering and Accounting for Prisoners of War and Missing Personnel


Erstfeld, Thomas E., Joint Force Quarterly


The United States expends great effort to account for members of the Armed Forces who were lost while serving the Nation. Over the years no other country has done as much. The Department of Defense is responsible for personnel recovery and accounting. Today, the Defense Prisoner of War/Missing Personnel Office (DPMO) develops and oversees national policies which facilitate this overall endeavor.

Looking for the Lost

In the aftermath of the Vietnam War, various commissions pursued information on the fate of missing servicemembers. In 1991 the Senate established the Select Committee on Prisoner of War/Missing in Action (POW/MIA) Affairs, which thoroughly investigated the issue, including government attempts to resolve it. One committee recommended a single DOD office to oversee all matters relating to captive and missing Americans.

DPMO was initially organized as the Defense Prisoner of War/Missing in Action Office by DOD Directive 5110.10 on July 16, 1993, under the authority, direction, and control of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs. This achieved centralized management of POW/MIA affairs within DOD. DPMO provides departmental participation in negotiations with foreign governments to achieve maximum accounting of missing servicemembers; assembles and analyzes information and maintains data bases on military and civilian personnel who are, or were, prisoners of war or missing in action; declassifies documents for disclosure and release according to public law and executive orders; and maintains channels of communication among Pentagon officials, members of Congress, POW/MIA families, and veterans organizations.

As the Deputy Secretary of Defense stated in a memorandum dated September 14, 1994, "The preservation of life and well-being of U.S. servicemembers and DOD civilians placed in harm's way while defending U.S. national interests is and must remain one of the department's highest priorities." He recognized that in an environment of military operations other than war, diminishing capabilities, and concurrent U.S. commitments, reliance on ad hoc recovery of personnel was unacceptable. Legislation enacted with the FY96 National Defense Authorization Act called for a single office within the Office of the Secretary of Defense with responsibility for missing persons policy. The intent was to merge past, present, and future accounting efforts with policy oversight for live personnel recovery matters, thereby creating one office to exercise policy, control, and oversight of the entire process for investigation and recovery (including matters related to search, evasion, rescue, and escape), coordinate with other departments and agencies on all matters concerning missing persons, and establish procedures for DOD boards of inquiry and officials reviewing reports by such boards under the provisions of the Missing Persons Act of 1996.

The Under Secretary of Defense for Policy redesignated the Defense POW/MIA Office as the Defense POW/Missing Personnel Office on August 15, 1996. This marked the first time since passage of the Goldwater-Nichols Act that there was a single office responsible for not only the historical accounting mission, but for policy, control, and oversight of the whole process--from the time of loss, through search and rescue, to either recovery of an individual or of remains or a conclusive determination of fate. It set the stage for this office to provide consistent leadership for the POW/MIA issue and fostered unified commitment to retrieving isolated personnel before they become unaccounted for. DPMO uses a threefold approach to shape recovery and accounting policies: preparing forces before combat, recouping isolated Americans before or after capture, and retrieving and identifying the remains of those killed in action.

In addition, DPMO provides overall development, coordination, approval, and promulgation of policies and plans for enemy POWs. …

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