In what was likely his last major policy move, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel announced Friday the formation of a new agency to coordinate disparate efforts at accounting for and recovering the missing and dead from the nation's wars.
The new agency within the Defense Department, which has yet to be given a name or a home headquarters, would merge the Defense POW/MIA Office (DPMO), the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command (JPAC), and several forensic laboratories under a new director to be appointed by President Obama.
Navy Rear Adm. Mike Franken, the former vice director for strategy at U.S. Central Command, will lead the new agency as interim director during the consolidation until a permanent director is named when the agency is fully operational next year.
Air Force Maj. Gen. Kelly, McKeague, commander of JPAC, will serve as interim deputy director, and the Pentagon's oversight of the new agency will be led by Christine Wormuth, the Defense undersecretary for policy. Wormuth's chief advisor on POW/MIA issues will be Army Lt. Gen. Michael Linnington, a veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan.
In a statement, Hagel, who announced his resignation in November and is awaiting the conformation of Ashton Carter as his replacement, said that the main goals of the new agency were to end the bureaucratic infighting that has plagued recovery efforts in the past. It will also seek to communicate and coordinate better with the families of the missing.
"America will remain committed to always bringing home our missing and fallen," Hagel said. "The decisions we are announcing today will ensure we honor that solemn obligation."
Last year, Hagel appointed a Personnel Accounting and Consolidation Task Force to review recovery efforts following complaints from the families and Congress over "dysfunction" in the management system.
The non-partisan Government Accountability Office also issued a report citing "long-standing leadership weaknesses and a fragmented organizational structure" within the existing structure of the POW/MIA accounting and recovery system.
Prior to the announcement, the interim leadership of the new agency met with veterans service organizations and representatives of family groups including Ann Mills Griffiths, head of the National League of POW/MIA Families.
Griffiths said she was inclined to be skeptical but added that the changes outlined were "long overdue and hopefully there'll be a positive result."
Bob Wallace, executive director of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, said after the meeting with Franken, McKeague and Linnington that they "want to listen, want to engage." There will be areas of disagreement going forward, Wallace said, "but at least we're dealing with credible individuals."
More than 80,000 service members have been listed as missing since World War II, including more than 7,800 from Korea, and Hagel had been under pressure to meet a Congressional mandate that the Defense Department identify the remains of at least 200 MIAs annually by 2015.
At national POW/MIA Day ceremonies in September, Hagel said that in 2014 the country had accounted for 71 service members from World War II, Korea and Vietnam, compared to 61 in 2013.
"While this improvement is good, we must do better -- we will do better -- not only in more effectively accounting for our missing personnel, but also ensuring that their families receive timely and accurate information," Hagel said.
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at email@example.com