Responding to a report characterizing its current efforts as "acutely dysfunctional," the Pentagon said last week it will take a "second look" at how it searches for the remains of U.S. soldiers deemed missing in action on foreign soil.
According to media reports, the criticism was levied in a 2012 internal review of the Joint POW-MIA Accounting Command's, or JPAC's, field operations program, which includes search and recovery missions to identify remains of U.S. soldiers. The review reportedly said the JPAC program has been plagued by ineptitude, waste and mismanagement.
Those in New Hampshire who advocate for prisoners of war and missing personnel say the problems with JPAC have existed for years.
"This is not news," said Bob Jones of Meredith, director of the Northeast POW/MIA Network. "This has been believed and discussed for years, but who listens? I have no doubt the boots on the ground want to find these soldiers and bring them home, but there's a huge gap between the boots and the suits in Washington. I don't think the suits are working on that at all."
Jeff Stewart is the New England Regional liaison for Rolling Thunder NH-1, a chapter of a national group that advocates for a full accounting of all POW/MIAs.
"Am I disappointed? Yes,'' he said. "Am I surprised? No way.
"I'm disappointed as a veteran, I'm disappointed as a member of Rolling Thunder and I'm disappointed as an American."
The Associated Press obtained a copy of the internal study, which reportedly found, among other things, that JPAC has been digging up too few clues on former battlefields, relying on inaccurate databases and engaging in expensive "boondoggles" in Europe.
In North Korea, JPAC workers dug up remains between 1996 and 2000 that the North Koreans apparently had taken out of storage and planted in former American fighting positions, the report said. The North Koreans were paid hundreds of thousands of dollars for assisting in the digs.
The Pentagon says it will address the issues raised in the study.
"We have a sacred obligation to perform this mission well," Pentagon press secretary George Little told reporters during a news conference last week, according to a transcript at the Department of Defense's website. "We're going to review the concerns raised in the report to see how JPAC is or isn't functioning well. And if steps need to be taken to remedy what's happening inside JPAC, then we'll take action. This is an important mission."
Asked for comment, U.S. Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., said: "This report appears to contain deeply troubling findings, and I have requested a copy of the report and additional information regarding what action is being taken to fix these alleged problems. We have a moral obligation to find and bring home the remains of American military heroes still missing from past wars and conflicts, and as a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, I am committed to ensuring that our nation does not waver from this duty."
Shripal Shah, spokesman for U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, said: "Senator Shaheen is troubled by the reported details of this study. She believes the Pentagon must address the issues raised by this report immediately."
Spokesmen for U.S. Reps. Carol Shea-Porter and Annie Kuster didn't respond to requests for comment from the New Hampshire Sunday News.
Jones said he has taken issue with JPAC - which has its headquarters in Hawaii and is run by a two-star general - in the past.
"If you ask me, JPAC has been the cover for ineptitude for years and, yes, even corrupt, because honestly, who cares?" said Jones. "Who checks? Who reports on JPAC? It takes the media to get information out about it. How has the POW/MIA issue been handled for years by JPAC? I call it their 'by the passage of time' method. Meaning, in time, all will be forgotten."
Stewart said Rolling Thunder's interactions with JPAC have been cordial, if not informative. The organization annually requests updates on JPAC's efforts to locate MIAs from New Hampshire.
"The people we deal with are helpful, but I think the bureaucracy limits the amount of info they can give out," said Stewart. "In the world we live in today, with the technology that exists, it's unacceptable that we can't find these people. There's no excuse for it."
The U.S. estimates there are more than 83,000 Americans missing who served in World War II, Korea and Vietnam. The list includes six New Hampshire service members from the Vietnam War, 43 from Korea, and an unknown number from World War II.
On average, JPAC reports successfully completing 69 identifications of recovered remains per year. Congress has mandated the number reach 200 identifications a year by 2015.
Over the years, New Hampshire has acted to make sure service members are not forgotten. In 2007, a state law was passed requiring that POW-MIA flags fly at all state facilities, National Guard armories and other military sites whenever the U.S. flag is flown.
In Meredith, Jones and others have hosted a POW/MIA vigil every Thursday at 7 p.m. in Hesky Park.
"We check in with JPAC every few months to ask about the investigations," said Jones. "We get the 'Thank you for your interest' or the 'To whom it may concern' back. The pats on the head, saying they are doing everything they can. "How do we know that? How does anyone? This report that came out is just the start. We have to stay on them. You can't just sit back and wave the flag and think everything's going to be just fine."