Bringing the Fallen Home
By Lena Anthony
Volume 142, Number 4, July/August 2008, Page 4
Photos courtesy of Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command (JPAC)
Since taking command of the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command (JPAC), Rear Admiral Donna Crisp has become acutely aware of the passage of time. She says racing against the clock is the biggest challenge facing her organization, which is responsible for recovering, identifying and returning home the remains of the more than 88,000 Americans still unaccounted for in areas where U.S. conflicts from World War II to the Persian Gulf War took place.
“As each day passes, witnesses die and sites are being disturbed,” she says. “But most important, family members are passing away before we can return their loved ones to them.”
JPAC is based at Hickam Air Force Base in Hawaii, with three permanent detachments in Laos, Thailand and Vietnam. Each year, about 70 teams are deployed around the world to analyze and investigate viable recovery sites and excavate remains. Recovery deployments last an average of 45 days. “It’s a very aggressive schedule, with teams in the field from sunrise to sunset,” she says.
It’s a challenging mission, but one that Rear Adm. Crisp says she’s proud to lead.
“Everyone at JPAC would agree that we’re lucky to have this opportunity,” she says. “It’s such a unique humanitarian mission. We all volunteered to do this mission, and we’re all passionate about recovering our nation’s heroes.”
There is no typical day for the rear admiral, whose schedule could one day put her in Laos for a meeting with government officials to negotiate the terms of JPAC’s recovery efforts and the next back at headquarters performing the usual duties of a commander—managing the budget and checking on the facilities to make sure they’re in good shape. She also visits recovery sites around the world, which are often remote and difficult to access.
She recently returned from the Republic of Papua New Guinea, where three teams are deployed looking for the remains of military personnel who went missing in action during World War II.
When remains are found, they’re carefully placed in aluminum transfer cases. Draped with the American flag, these cases stay on-site until the mission is over.
“The thing that impresses people the most when we go into the field is how we treat the remains with the respect and dignity that our American heroes deserve,” she says.
JPAC’s emphasis on treating the sites with such care may be part of the reason foreign nations have been so receptive to helping the teams with their efforts. “I’ve been so pleased that each nation I have worked with has been warm, welcoming and helpful,” Rear Adm. Crisp says. “They appreciate that we’re searching for our ancestors years after these conflicts ended. It says something special about America and how we value life.”
When recovery missions are finished, the team returns with the findings to Hawaii, where current military personnel, veterans and community members are waiting to pay their respects to the missing American heroes.
“The arrival ceremony is a life-changing experience,” she says.
The remains are then transported to JPAC’s Central Identification Laboratory for analysis. The lab makes about six positive identifications a month for a total of 75 per year. “Some remains can take several months to several years to be identified,” Rear Adm. Crisp says.
The hard work culminates when families arrive to view the remains before they’re transported a final time for burial.
“We have a special room where they can sit and be at peace with their loved one,” she says. “Closure is a very important part of the process.”
The important mission of finding and identifying America’s missing heroes doesn’t leave much room in the rear admiral’s schedule, but she always carves out time for the DAR. A Daughter since 1998, she is a member of the Great Bridge Chapter, Norfolk, Va., and an associate member of Arlington House Chapter, Arlington, Va., and the Aloha Chapter, Honolulu, Hawaii.
“It’s such an honor to be a part of DAR,” she says, “and to be surrounded by brilliant, hardworking women who put such a priority on service to our country.”