That seems to be the reason that the military isn’t identifying those of its dead who fell in far-off places in any kind of timely manner.
The Pentagon spends about $100 million a year to find men like Bud, following the ethos of “leave no man behind.” Yet it solves surprisingly few cases, hobbled by overlapping bureaucracy and a stubborn refusal to seize the full potential of modern forensic science. Last year, the military identified just 60 service members out of the about 83,000 Americans missing from World War II, Korea and Vietnam, around 45,000 of whom are considered recoverable.
At the center of the military’s effort is a little-known agency, the Joint Prisoners of War/Missing in Action Accounting Command, or J-PAC, and its longtime scientific director, Tom Holland. He alone assesses whether the evidence J-PAC has assembled is sufficient to identify a set of remains: A body goes home only if he signs off.
Holland sounds like a piece of work. He refuses to use DNA testing until the very end of the identification process, and then only to confirm what other evidence has already shown. That’s backward from the way newer forensic labs do their jobs. He apparently doesn’t take criticism well:
Almost a dozen current and former staffers described Holland as someone who bridles at being challenged and fiercely protects his fiefdom.
“Expressing dissent was clearly not appreciated and frowned on,” said Leney, who now teaches at the University of Massachusetts Medical School.
Leney said he and another anthropologist wrote Holland a memo in 2002 about problems with procedures and standards at the lab. They asked for guidance and clarification. “Here is my guidance:Don’t ever write a memo like this again unless it is stapled to your resignation,” Holland wrote back.
The guy has a difficult job, but he doesn’t seem to want to modernize it to perform what is its real mission: identifying America’s war dead from conflicts as far back as World War II and occasionally earlier. And how’s this for classic bureaucratic Cover Your Ass attitude?
More than 9,400 service members are buried as “unknowns” in American cemeteries around the world. Holland’s lab has rejected roughly nine out of every 10 requests to exhume such graves.
Holland’s cautious approach is animated by a fear of mistakes.
“Our credibility is only as good as our last misidentification,” he said in an interview. “It doesn’t matter that I’ve identified 500 people correctly. If I misidentify one, that’s what going to be the focus. That’s what’s going to be on the news. That is what is going to erode the credibility. That’s what I go home with every night.”
Meanwhile, the families of those people who are buried in those cemeteries want the bodies home where they can be reinterred in gravesites where they can be visited, but Mr. Holland doesn’t seem to care a lot about that.
He’s been there nineteen years. Twenty is long enough. He should be “retired” and a more progressive scientist should be brought in to manage the organization. We’ve always been kind of proud of the work that J-Pac (the Joint Prisoners of War/Missing in Action Accounting Command) has done out here in Hawai’i, but not after this.