SASEBO NAVAL BASE, Japan -- The American Legion has demanded immediate reform of the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command over a report that the agency had staged ceremonies celebrating the "arrival" home of missing troops, a practice that some base staffers in Hawaii dubbed "The Big Lie."
Legion officials said the practice of honor guards carrying flag-draped coffins off cargo planes at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam in Hawaii and incorrectly announcing they had just returned that day from foreign battlefields was deceptive and must be changed. The non-profit veterans organization boasts 2.4 million members in 14,000 posts worldwide.
"Symbolic honors are one thing, but deception is quite another," American Legion National Commander Daniel Dellinger said in a statement. "The so-called 'Big Lie' does not honor our war dead. Instead, it misleads and insults the living. It is especially egregious during a most sensitive and vulnerable time for families."
The Legion's statement was released a day after NBC News reported JPAC had staged the phony arrival ceremonies for seven years and that the planes used in the ceremonies often couldn't even fly. Pentagon officials were forced to admit the deception but claimed the coffins did contain remains, just not ones that had arrived that day.
"Part of the ceremony involves symbolically transferring the recovered remains from an aircraft to a vehicle for follow-on transportation to the lab," the Pentagon told NBC. "It is important to note that recovered remains ceremoniously transferred from the aircraft to the [bus] have been in the lab undergoing forensic analysis to determine identity. When remains first arrive in Hawaii, JPAC cannot confirm if the remains are those of an American servicemember."
Rick Stone, a retired police chief and former WWII investigator for JPAC, told Stars and Stripes that the silver cases were stacked outside, next to the JPAC identification laboratory, before and after the ceremonies, so if remains were contained inside, as the Pentagon contends, it was disrespectful.
Stone provided NBC photographs he took of the cases leaning up against the building.
Pentagon officials said the ceremonies were "misinterpreted" and changes have been made to label them "honors ceremonies," NBC reported. The Pentagon also said it is reviewing procedures.
The NBC report was the latest in a string of embarrassments for the country's POW/MIA accounting apparatus. In July, The Associated Press exposed an internal review by a management consultant that chronicled turf wars and questionable recovery results that the JPAC brass covered up. The report called the agency "acutely dysfunctional."
Soon after, the Government Accountability Office released its own report detailing inefficiencies and saying the accounting apparatus needs an overhaul. Congressional hearings were held in August, and the allegations are under review by the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy, officials said.
Legion officials said they believe JPAC was not trying to be cruel by staging the phony ceremonies, but honesty from the beginning would have been more honorable.
"I sincerely believe, based on The American Legion's experiences and interactions, that the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command is, by and large, dedicated to its mission and provides a valuable service to the military family community," Dellinger said. "The mission of identifying and repatriating our missing is a sacred obligation."