By Samantha L. Quigley

Theirs is a solemn task.

The men and women of the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command are charged with making good on a nation’s promise to leave no man behind.

In doing so, military and civilian personnel are tasked with traveling to foreign lands and recovering the remains of fallen U.S. troops for repatriation and return to loved ones who never lost hope. The task is not easy, but little worth doing ever is.

As a provision of the 1973 Paris Peace Accords, the Defense Department established the Joint Casualty Resolution Center. Its mission was to resolve the cases of U.S troops whose remains had not been recovered during the Vietnam War. JCRC worked in conjunction with the Central Identification Laboratory, Thailand, or CIL-THAI, which employed scientific means to identify the remains JCRC recovered.

In 1976, CIL-THAI relocated to Hawaii and, appropriately changed its name to reflect its new home—CILHI.

In 1992, JCRC became Joint Task Force – Full Accounting. A little more than a decade later, JTF – FA and CILHI merged, and on October 1, 2003, became known as Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command.

Photo credit DOD photo by Marine Corps Sgt. Wayne Hansen

Army Staff Sgt. Denetra Reilly, with the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command, digs in an established excavation grid in Thua Thien-Hue province, Vietnam.

JPAC continues to maintain its headquarters on the Hawaiian island of Oahu, but also operates an annex at Offutt Air Force Base, Nebraska. Together, the Hawaii and Nebraska locations employ more than 500 military and civilian personnel and provide expanded capabilities to continue JPAC’s global mission of locating, recovering and identifying unaccounted Americans from past conflicts.

On the surface, it’s a straightforward mission, but a lot of work precedes sending the recovery teams—21 of them, including an underwater and mountaineering team—on a mission. Case files have to be researched, leads investigated and most important, permission must be obtained from the country where JPAC would like to operate. It’s a carefully choreographed dance that has played out many times over the years as the agency expanded its scope to include fallen troops from all conflicts, including the Cold War.

Since standing up in October 2003, JPAC has identified more than 700 missing Americans. More than 1,800 Americans have been identified since the accounting effort began in the 1970s. The command’s work is far from over, however. It reports more than 83,000 Americans still missing from past conflicts, with the majority lost during World War II. With regard to the conflict responsible for JPAC’s existence, the command reports there are remains of 1,642 missing persons from the Vietnam War yet to be identified.

For a family that has been waiting to learn a loved one’s fate, the process is never fast enough, but identifying remains is an exacting science, and the Central Identification Laboratory personnel take their jobs very seriously. While the process, with its system of checks and balances—including locating relatives to obtain DNA samples against which samples from remains can be matched—takes time, it also minimizes the possibility of misidentification and further disappointment for families.

– Samantha L. Quigley is the editor in chief of On Patrol.