Understanding where POW/MIA accounting stands today and the way ahead requires knowing where we have been. Objectivity, reason and logic in pursuing answers on missing U.S. personnel from the Vietnam War — military and civilian — have always been critical. Too often, however, facts have been ignored, omitted or distorted, to the detriment of mission credibility.
Since 1970, the National League of POW/MIA Families has based expectations squarely on official U.S. data. Then and now, our quest is the “fullest possible accounting.” Ignoring evidence or engaging in wishful thinking undercuts well-founded expectations. At the same time, accounting for all missing personnel from past wars is unrealistic and will never be possible.
Politically driven attempts to dismiss the issue as somehow impeding normal economic and political relations were proven wrongheaded as well. Objective analysis demonstrates that POW/MIA accounting efforts formed the basis for constructive, sustainable relations between the U.S. government and counterparts in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia.
Support for humanitarian accounting efforts has fluctuated depending on commitment by successive administrations and perceived national interests. Support expands when uncertainty and concern rise in times of war, resulting in increased patriotic support for those now serving. POW/MIA accounting’s impact on our Armed Forces and veterans is a legacy in which we all invested and take great pride.
The need for innovative policy materialized when President Ronald Reagan came into office and raised the accounting effort from near oblivion to “a matter of highest national priority.” The inherent strategy adopted was the product of his personal interest, honed by interagency consensus, and implemented government-wide. Largely comprised of seasoned military and civilian Asian specialists, the POW/MIA Interagency Group was unusual; the League was included throughout as a full partner, engaging in high-level negotiations with foreign officials.
Thus began what productively evolved into the bilateral relationships now evident between the U.S. and countries from which answers began to come, jointly and unilaterally. From that origin came the “roadmap to normalization of relations” with Vietnam, and cooperation began to improve throughout Southeast Asia.
As of now, 1,611 U.S. personnel are still missing and unaccounted-for from the Vietnam War. Since the Jan. 27, 1973, Paris Peace Accords ended active American involvement, 1,035 Americans have been accounted for — recovered, returned and identified. Most importantly, bilateral negotiations with Laos and Vietnam, initiated seriously in 1982, followed by unilateral and multilateral efforts (including with Cambodia after the 1991 U.N.-sponsored agreement in 1991) resulted in accounting for 972 of that number.
The initial strategy and prioritization succeeded in getting us this far, but further progress is in jeopardy. The League’s consistent engagement in the process was and is, despite current challenges, a partnership that outlasted and survived numerous political and policy fluctuations.
Governments from which cooperation was key to success could rely on responsible League leadership and continuity; they have done so. Despite successive changes in administrations, foreign nations continue to look to the League for accurate historical perspective, ability to discern and confirm their level of responsiveness, and as a reliable channel of communication.
The League continues to monitor efforts of all, including Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Russia, the People’s Republic of China, and our own government. The most difficult and frustrating situations historically came from foreign counterparts, but no longer. Opportunities have been and are now being squandered, ironically precisely when Vietnamese, Laotians and Cambodians desire to expand responsiveness.
In December 2013, formation of a greatly expanded capability was directed by then-Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, a Vietnam veteran and former senator from Nebraska, long committed to this humanitarian mission. Following congressional hearings based more on unproven allegations and assertions than facts, several internal investigations, and serious disruption to the accounting effort, the League provided a reorganization plan to Secretary Hagel.
Prepared with significant assistance from informed, capable partners, this plan called for consolidation of three issue-related organizations into one civilian-led agency. Soon thereafter, Secretary Hagel directed formation of the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA) as a new civilian-led viable organization to restore checks and balances to the accounting process and remedy internal dysfunction.
His directive also mandated building on existing strengths and complete transparency; however, transparency remains elusive as seasoned veterans have resigned in disgust and transparency has shrunk.
Officially established on Jan. 1, 2015, DPAA initially suffered from uninformed, misguided outside leadership, creating tremendous uncertainty. This dysfunctional environment was ongoing when the originally selected civilian director abruptly resigned. After nearly a full year, a permanent director has not been named, and our promising new organization has been rudderless, without viable policy direction.
Can DPAA and this important mission be saved? Absolutely, especially with appointment of a new DPAA director who is informed, committed, dedicated and experienced, someone respected and trusted by the families, veterans and foreign officials as having honor, integrity and knowledge. Experience must include comprehensive understanding of past policy, operations and resulting historical impact. Such a person was long ago recommended by the League, Special Forces Association, Special Operations Association and Vietnam Veterans of America.
Future POW/MIA accounting success depends on President Trump signaling to all — foreign and domestic — that success in achieving shared accounting objectives is once again a matter of highest national priority. Hopefully, he will! Had President Reagan failed to define his commitment and support in 1982, hundreds of American families would still be dealing with uncertainty and seeking answers. Time is running out! This opportunity won’t come around again! It is time to reestablish the priority!
• Ann Mills-Griffiths is chairman and CEO of the National League of POW/MIA Families, and sister of Navy Reserve Cmdr. James B. Mills, who was listed MIA over North Vietnam on Sept. 21, 1966. She has been a leader of the League since 1978, and participated in the numerous official U.S. and League delegations to Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia between 1982 and 2015. Richard T. Childress is a Vietnam veteran and senior policy adviser for the National League of POW/MIA Families. He served in the Reagan administration’s National Security Council for eight years as director of Asian Affairs, and led or participated in all policy level negotiations with Vietnam and Laos between 1983 and 1989, and all League delegations since 1999.