Somewhere deep underwater and on the battlefields of World War II are more than 73,000 Americans missing in action.
Thousands more are unaccounted for in Korea, the jungles of Vietnam, and other conflicts.
Each year on the third Friday of September, Americans recognize, remember, and honor prisoners of war and service members missing in action. Each day the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command, or JPAC, is striving hard to bring those service members home to their families and loved ones.
With its command headquarters located on the island of Oahu in Hawaii, JPAC conducts global search, recovery, and laboratory operations to identify Prisoners of War and Missing in Action, or POW/MIA, around the world and return them home. Its detachments in Vietnam, Laos, Thailand, and Hawaii assist in-country support during investigation and recovery operations.
"This organization is vastly different than any other organization within the Department of Defense," said Marine Corps Col. Alan L. Thoma, JPAC deputy commander. "We're the only ones who do this."
The mission begins with investigating the locations of MIA and those service members killed in action who haven't been returned home. JPAC actively negotiates with representatives from foreign countries to maintain positive relationships and the ability to gain country access. Gaining access isn't guaranteed and has proven an obstacle in North Korea and countries with little or no relationship with the United States.
"We have built a very strong rapport -- based off of the Vietnam conflict -- with Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia," said Thoma. "We're regularly in their countries."
JPAC will be in Burma soon, a country that has been on hold for nearly seven years, said Thoma.
As time passes and negotiations are more successful with foreign countries, JPAC is able to send their teams to search more places for Americans who are unaccounted for.
"We're there in a humanitarian capacity," said Thoma. "We're not wearing uniforms; we don't take weapon systems with us."
Recovery teams are comprised of anthropologists, linguists, medics, explosive ordinance disposal technicians, and other additional experts, depending on the mission requirements.
Reports of the locations of downed aircraft or ground losses help the teams to locate MIA, find their remains, and bring them back home. Anthropologists set up excavation sites and sift through every ounce of soil dug for remains of service members.
"It is a once in a lifetime opportunity to do something -- beyond the protecting of our nation -- to bring these service members home," said Thoma. "We have the responsibility to locate them, bring them here, and make an identification."
The teams send all remains and artifacts found during the recovery back to JPAC's Central Identification Laboratory in Hawaii for analysis and identification. Experts use the world's largest skeletal forensics lab to make identifications, said Thoma.
More than 1,800 Americans have been identified since the accounting effort began, said Thoma.
"And we're striving hard to locate more," he said.
After an identification is made, the next of kin is notified by the service member's branch of service casualty service office, and the remains are returned home. JPAC has the ability to do something very special and to give families the closure they have been longing for. After waiting years, some decades, families can finally bury their loved ones.
"YOU ARE NOT FORGOTTEN."
The POW/MIA flag bears the motto and flies with the American flag at the Joint Task Force Guantanamo headquarters. Today in GTMO, JPAC in Hawaii, and all over the world, people are remembering and honoring POW and MIA on their recognition day.
"If you personally were sitting in a cell somewhere, that is something you can always remember," said Thoma. "There is a commitment and a resolve by America that we will not forget you, and we will come and find you."
"UNTIL THEY ARE HOME."
Combine JPAC's motto with the one stitched on the POW/MIA flag and there is a powerful commitment to service members and their families that no comrade will ever be left behind.
Article by Sgt. Ryan Hallock, Army.mil