Military Life

A sacred duty: Inside the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency

As of May 2023, 81,000 service members are missing from conflicts dating back to World War II.
Joshua Skovlund Avatar
A disinterment ceremony held at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, Honolulu, Hawaii, Mar. 4, 2019
U.S. service members assigned to the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA) participate in a disinterment ceremony held at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, located in Honolulu, Hawaii. The ceremony took placed on Mar. 4, 2019. (U.S. Army photo/Sgt. Lloyd Villanueva)

The U.S. military has defended our country for over 200 years, often at the expense of service members’ blood and tears. Some paid the ultimate sacrifice, while others became prisoners of war or went missing in action — their families left wondering what happened to their loved ones.

As a free nation, America’s duty is to never forget her missing warriors and to promise to never stop looking for them until everyone is found and returned home. The Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA) is the agency responsible for upholding that promise and performing that sacred duty. 

They’ve recovered the remains of Medal of Honor recipients, brought home 55 boxes of remains from North Korea, and even helped a missing chaplain be recognized in the first step to becoming a Saint in the Catholic Church.  

Sean Everette, the DPAA media relations chief, said the agency comprises active duty military personnel from all the service branches and Department of Defense civilian employees with specialized skill sets. The agency employs more forensic anthropologists than any other organization in the world. 

They work together to build cases on the missing, develop a plan to recover them, and then physically carry out the mission. As of May 2023, 81,000 service members are missing from conflicts dating back to World War II. 41,000 are considered lost at sea because of either ships sinking or aircraft crashing into the ocean. 

U.S. Air Force Master Sgt. Paul White, a recovery NCO assigned to the DPAA recovery team, carries a hose during an archeological dig. (U.S. Navy photo/Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Trey Hutcheson).

A brief history of the DPAA

Efforts to locate missing service members pre-date the DPAA, going back to the 1970s. The agency’s formation was born out of a need to organize efforts, better share talents between the different teams, and have some accountability behind the mission.

Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel directed the formation of the agency in 2014, and it was completed a year later. The three former DoD organizations merged, including the Defense Prisoner of War/Missing Personnel Office, the Joint Prisoner of War/Missing in Action Accounting Command, and sections of the US Air Force’s Life Sciences Equipment Laboratory.  

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DPAA headquarters is in Arlington, Virginia. They have two forensic labs at the Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska and Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam in Hawaii. Each lab has a general area of operations that it is responsible for. Missions originating from the Indo-Pacific go to Hawaii, and those originating in Europe or the Mediterranean go to Nebraska — though some projects from the Indo-Pacific are sent to Nebraska.

Since it was established, 1,453 service members, civilians embedded with troops, or other personnel, such as CIA officers, have been returned home. Everette said the DPAA has a little over 700 staff members, and several outside agencies and private organizations assist with their mission. 

“I mean, there’s a reason that my main goal for work after I retired from the Army was coming back here,” Everette said. He served 24 years between the Navy and the Army, with his last assignment before he retired at the agency. “It’s a very rewarding mission to be a part of.”

The DPAA mission

The DPAA’s mission is simple in statement: to provide the “fullest possible accounting” of the U.S. military’s missing personnel to their families and their nation. With a budget of $150 million as of 2023, several different types of teams work to research, analyze, and then attempt recovery of the living or the dead. 

It doesn’t matter if the remains are at the bottom of the ocean or within a non-allied country. The DPAA deploys teams to all environments worldwide to recover missing servicemembers. Every advancement in technology allows for the agency’s ability to confirm identities and recover remains to grow stronger. 

Multiple partners make the DPAA’s mission possible, including the Armed Forces Medical Examiner System, the Service Casualty and Mortuary Affairs, and the Defense Intelligence Agency. All assist the DPAA in one way or another to accomplish their mission. 

The mission is supported by the Air Force, Army, Navy, and Marine Corps. Everyone assigned to the DPAA must learn each service branch’s intricacies to work fluidly in a joint service environment. 

“The Army has a different language than the Marines, which has a different language than the Navy, and mostly a different language than the Air Force. And so there’s a little bit of learning how to speak joint as opposed to speaking just your own service language,” Everette said. “But that never gets in the way of us being able to accomplish our mission and work together as a team.”

How the DPAA builds a case

Before a case is established, the agency’s historians and analysts comb through historical records on every soldier, sailor, Marine, and airman who has been reported missing and is recorded on their master list of those missing. 

DPAA Research and Investigation Teams have 10-14 members who are primarily analysts and linguists. They research host nation archives to investigate any information that helps with “Last Known Alive cases,” which are the agency’s priority. 

The Research and Investigation Teams pour themselves into every record available. Once enough has been gathered, a case file is put together. Every bit of information gathered after is added to the file until they have enough to either recover the remains or justify the disinterment of unidentified remains. 

“No case is exactly the same as any other case. There are underwater cases, cases of planes that went down in the mountains, cases of guys who went missing during a land battle in a forest, and cases of guys who went missing while crossing a river during a battle,” Everette said. “There are all kinds of different cases that bring their own complexities and difficulties.”

Investigative teams follow up on leads developed by the RITs. Each investigative team has four to nine members with specialized skills: a team leader, analysts, linguists, medics, and a forensic anthropologist. 

U.S. Navy Senior Chief Petty Officer Joseph Hawley, Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA) explosive ordnance disposal (EOD) technician, right, and Chief Hospital Corpsman Elton Reece, team medic, left, perform a metal sweep during a site survey in the People’s Republic of China on Jan. 12, 2024. They are responsible for using a metal detector to search for possible aircraft wreckage and other metal that can give DPAA personnel a better picture of where incidents may have occurred. (U.S. Army photo/Staff Sgt. John Miller)

They travel to the location to talk with potential witnesses, investigate the physical location, and evaluate the area for any safety concerns or logistical challenges. Once they’ve collected everything, they conclude whether they can send out one or more of the 24 recovery teams. Like the RITs, the recovery teams have 10-14 members with specialized skills like SCUBA diving or mountaineering.  

Each recovery team includes: 

  • forensic anthropologist
  • team leader and sergeant
  • linguist
  • medic
  • life support technician
  • communications technician
  • forensic photographer
  • explosive ordnance disposal technician
  • mortuary affairs specialists

Once on site, the recovery teams will begin an archeological dig to recover remains or indicators that will lead the team to the remains.

“We very thoroughly, painstakingly, and methodically excavate these sites, and we have people sift through all of the dirt that is dug up,” Everette said. 

If remains are found, they are gathered for multiple tests using circumstantial evidence to prove the identity of the remains. The gathered evidence consists of DNA, forensic analysis, dental analysis, and, if available, radioisotope testing. 

“We take all of that evidence and put it together so that we can say definitively this is the person,” Everette said. 

It’s a similar process when evaluating the remains of an unidentified person buried in one of the many military graveyards across the world. Once they have gathered enough evidence, they must present their findings to the responsible authorities to authorize the disinterment of the remains.

DPAA personnel dig a test pit and screen dirt in a rice paddy in the People’s Republic of China on Jan. 14, 2024. A DPAA team spent several weeks surveying sites in Southern China in order to provide vital information for future recovery missions. (U.S. Army photo/Staff Sgt. John Miller)

Once a servicemember is identified, the respective service casualty office is notified of the findings, and they reach out to the family and help them with arrangements. The DPAA puts together a brief for the family that will walk them through everything they know. 

From start to finish, cases take years to build and often require worldwide travel, sometimes to areas where the U.S. military would typically not be allowed to enter. The DPAA just sent an investigative team to China to search two different sites they believed to be the last known locations of a C-47 SkyTrain and a P-40 Warhawk, both of which crashed during WWII.

“Our mission is considered a humanitarian mission. Therefore, it’s a way to talk to these countries that we may otherwise be unable to, for whatever reason,” Everette said. “This mission can be an avenue to have friendlier relations and normalize everything.”

The benefactors of the DPAA

The families of those lost at war don’t get the closure that so many find customary in today’s society. Having nobody to bury can lead to thoughts like are they still alive? Sometimes, seeing your loved one in the casket confirms the loss. But for 24-year-old Mark Gibson, it can delay a level of connectedness. 

“I never really realized that not knowing him at all, but also just never having his remains, it’s almost in some weird way I didn’t have a grandfather,” Gibson said. “But, when all of a sudden you have that understanding, you can locate that person in the world, then they become real to you in a different way. I’ve never really understood that until it occurred.” 

The U.S. Army reported Master Sgt. Thomas Crayton was missing following a hellacious battle in the area of Somindong, North Korea, on December 1950. The family later learned that Crayton had died in POW Camp #5, but his remains were not confirmed until the DPAA finished their search on Sep. 26, 2023.

When the remains had been confirmed, Gibson and his family met with representatives from DPAA who walked them through what they had researched and discovered. He heard everything from Crayton’s unit’s maneuvers on the battlefield that fateful day to what happened afterward. But, he found out about other deeply personal information. 

“My grandfather at the time was 28 — I’m 44 — when he died. I think I can really start to understand all the decisions and all the choices made that day,” Gibson said. “He was a master sergeant, a 28-year-old guy. It helped me understand what he was going through — he sent a letter to my grandmother telling her that he wasn’t going to make it.”

That’s information Gibson had never heard until Crayton’s remains were confirmed. He believes his grandmother had difficulty bringing up that information because it would tear open old wounds. But for Gibson, it brought a sense of closure and helped him meet the man he never met in person. 

The whole family finally found closure when the DPAA confirmed their long-lost relative was identified. Gibson said the DPAA representatives sat with the whole family to walk them through hours of history about their grandfather. 

“They spent about three hours or more with us, going through the facts. Anytime you want to call them, you can call them. It’s really to put to rest your doubt. It’s to give real solace to people,” Gibson said. “That’s extremely rare. To have people who really seem dedicated to providing that, there’s nothing like the DPAA. I think it’s important for people to know about this; I think it’s important for people to see that.” 

FAQs about the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA)

You have questions, Task & Purpose has answers.

Q: How do you report a missing service member? 

A: If known, contact the missing service members branch of service casualty office: Air Force: 1-800-531-5501; Army: 1-800-892-2490; Marine Corps: 1-800-847-1597; Navy: 1-800-443-9298; or the Department of State: 1-202-485-6106.

Q: How many service members has the DPAA located?

A: 1,453 service members, embedded civilians, or other government employees.

Q: When was the first POW/MIA service member located by the DPAA?

A: Jan. 17, 2015 is the date of the first POW located. Pvt. Arthur H. Kelder died in WWII as a POW at Cabanatuan in the Philippines. Everette clarified that the work would have been completed before the establishment of the agency. 

Q: Does the DPAA know where the over 81,000 missing service members are located?

A: 41,000 are believed to be lost at sea, but the rest have estimated locations the DPAA has detailed on a global map. 

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