Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel speaks during a March 31 press conference at the Pentagon. (Jim Watson / Getty Images)
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After months of criticism about how the military accounts for the remains of fallen U.S. service members from foreign battlefields, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said Monday he will create a single Pentagon-level office to oversee the worldwide mission.
Hagel will eliminate the existing Hawaii-based Joint POW-MIA Accounting Command, or JPAC, which according to an internal review was rife with mismanagement, waste and incompetence.
The new office will consolidate all aspects of the mission for finding the estimated 83,000 Americans who remain missing from World War II and the wars in Korea and Vietnam.
“There’s not a more poignant, emotional, important issue in our society today,” Hagel said Monday at a Pentagon news conference. “You take care of the people who gave their lives to this country and you take care of their families, and that has been a critical component of who we are as Americans.
“These steps will help improve the accounting mission, increase the number of identifications of our missing, provide greater transparency for their families, and expand our case file system to include all missing personnel,” Hagel said.
A series of internal investigations into JPAC and other defense offices involved in recovering remains found repeated instances of shoddy science and mishandling of remains. JPAC also admitted to holding phony repatriation ceremonies that misled families about how the remains of their loved ones were handled.
The so-called arrival ceremonies involved honor guards removing flag-draped coffins from cargo planes on a tarmac, giving the impression the remains had arrived that day. But military officials acknowledged that the aircraft used for the ceremonies could not fly and the remains typically arrived days or weeks before the ceremonies.
The new office will be run by a civilian with a likely annual budget of about $100 million, an amount similar to that spent in recent years but parceled out to several different commands.
All communications with family members from past conflicts will be handled through this new office. Family members of missing troops have complained that they were unable to get complete and up-to-date information about the effort to recover their loved ones.
“They will be communicated with clearly [and] directly, and it will be communications from one central location,” Hagel said.
In recent years, JPAC’s effectiveness has slowed significantly. The average number of remains recovered each year fell to about 70, down from 200 several years ago, defense officials said.
Among other changes under consideration is the creation of a DNA database that would allow for more rapid and effective identification of remains.