On Friday, the remains of Sgt. 1st Class Gilberto Sanchez were lowered into his native Texas soil more than 64 years after the 19 year-old combat medic disappeared in the middle of the Korean War. Sanchez was just one of an estimated 83,000 G.I.s whose remains were lost on the many battlefields of U.S. history.
Since 1973, it has been the job of the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command (JPAC) to find these remains and then identify them. From the laboratory to the many field excavations, JPAC is involved in all aspects of bringing service men and women back to the United States. The command employs 30 anthropologists and 400 civilians and military personnel to achieve its mission. It's field teams, at times, will spend 5-10 months of the year out of the country. It costs the federal government roughly $100 million a year, and represents one of the largest recovery efforts in the world.
The emotional toll for the families of missing soldiers is extreme. Families would undoubtedly argue that the effort is worth the cost.
Sgt. Sanchez represents one of the many times JPAC has been able to temper the loss of a loved one with some form of closure, even if it came 64 years later. But Sanchez's identification also represents 20 years of work, a point JPAC has been harshly criticized for in the past, the length of time it typically takes for them to identify remains.
Congress mandated the organization more than double its current identification rate to 200 a year by 2015. JPAC has said it will not meet the goal. In an investigation last year by NPR and ProPublica, the process JPAC uses to identify remains was called wrongheaded by some who thought the effort used arcane methods and should be focused on DNA results.
Two years ago, in an internal review conducted and then suppressed by the military, JPAC was called "woefully inept" and heading from "dysfunction to total failure." Allegations of scandal erupted as a result of the review. False repatriation ceremonies, mishandling of remains, and misleading families are all highlighted. An ongoing whistleblower lawsuit continues against JPAC as well.
Last year, a report from the U.S. Governmental Accountablility Office found JPAC still had key organizational issues to resolve before progress could be made.
As a result of its problems, earlier this month Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel announced JPAC and a series of other POW/MIA related services will combine into one DoD department, combining Defense Prisoner of War/Mission Personnel Office, JPAC and the Air Force Life Science Equipment laboratory into one unit. Many MIA and POW advocates have reportedly questioned the JPAC leadership remaining in the organization, and are skeptical of the ability of the DoD to improve outcomes.
Are expectations too high? What are your stories of fallen soldiers?
- Kelly McEvers, NPR reporter on the series "Grave Science"
- Wil S. Hylton, author of the book "Vanished: The 60-year Search for the Men of WWII"
- Imelda Iydar, niece of Sgt. 1st Class Gilberto Sanchez.