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Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency works to repatriate service member remains

CHARLESTON, W.Va. --

The United States Armed Forces is committed to leaving no one behind on the battlefield, so much so that the ethos is part of both the Soldier’s and Airman’s Creed. But with the remains of more than 82,000 American service members killed overseas still missing, one Department of Defense office works to recover, identify and eventually bring those remains home.

The Department of Defense tasks the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency with fulfilling the government’s commitment to determining what happened to U.S. service members who remain unaccounted for from past designated wars including World War II, Korean War, Cold War, Vietnam War, Libya, Desert Storm and Iraqi Freedom. About 700 Soldiers, Airmen, Marines, Sailors and Naval Department civilians work with the agency in locating, excavating and recovering the bodies of missing service members.

“Our mission to provide the fullest possible accounting for of those that made the ultimate sacrifice for our nation is a most scared mission—it is our promise to all Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen or Marines and their families that we will not leave a comrade behind,” said Ashley Wright, a public affairs officer with DPAA. “It speaks volumes as to who we are as a nation and our values.  From mountains to jungles to underwater, we work around the globe to fulfill this commitment.”

The third Friday of September is commemorated each year as POW/MIA Recognition Day to honor past prisoners of war and those still missing in action. The West Virginia National Guard joins the White House, the Department of Defense, and other military branches in remembering and honoring those individuals and their families who have made great sacrifices for our country.  

POW/MIA Recognition Day holds special meaning across the Mountain State this year. In August, the agency was able to repatriate the remains of two West Virginia service members who had previously been unidentified.  

U.S. Army Cpl. Pete Conley, 19, of Chapmanville, was reported missing in action on December 12, 1950, after his unit was attacked by enemy forces near the Chosin Reservoir, North Korea, according to a DPAA news release. In the years that followed, some of Conley’s family members provided DNA samples to the federal government in hopes of being able to eventually identify his remains. In 2018, the North Korean government returned the remains of 55 U.S. service members to the U.S. government, including those of Conley. Those remains arrived at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Hawaii in August of that year and were then turned over to DPAA for identification.

“To identify Conley’s remains, scientists from DPAA used anthropological analysis, as well as circumstantial evidence. Additionally, scientists from the Armed Forces Medical Examiner System used mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) and autosomal DNA (auSTR) analysis,” according to the news release.

Conley’s remains were flown to Columbus, Ohio, last month and a police escort brought his remains to the Chapmanville area, where some members of his family still reside. Conley’s remains were buried next to his mother in Pecks Hill.

Stanislaw “Stanley” Drwall, of Thomas, was 25 when he was killed at Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. His ship, the USS Oklahoma, sustained multiple torpedo hits and quickly capsized, causing the deaths of 429 crewmen, according to the DPAA.

Soon after the attack, the U.S. Navy recovered the remains of deceased crewmen and interred them in the Halawa and Nu’uanu cemeteries in Hawaii. In 1947, the American Graves Registration Service disinterred the remains and transferred them to the Central Identification Laboratory at Schofield Barracks, Hawaii. At the time, the laboratory staff could confirm the identification of only 35 sailors. The AGRS then buried the unidentified remains in 46 plots at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific (known as the “Punchbowl”) in Honolulu. In 1949, those unidentified remains, which included Drwall, were classified as non-recoverable.

In 2015, DPAA personnel exhumed USS Oklahoma unknowns from the Punchbowl for analysis. To identify Drwalls’ remains, scientists used dental and anthropological analysis as well as mtDNA and Y chromosome DNA (Y-STR) analysis.

Drwall’s remains were returned to Tucker County in early August where his family held a funeral ceremony for him. His remains were interred in the same burial plot his father bought for him after he was declared missing in action, according to the Charleston Gazette-Mail.

As these cases illustrate, repatriating the remains of decades-gone service members is not an easy task. Locating and excavating the bodies of missing service members lost overseas is a long, often arduous process that involves interviewing historians and government officials in host countries, investigating leads, conducting on-site reconnaissance and surveying the terrain for safety and logistical concerns, according to the DPAA website. All of that must happen before teams can begin the archaeological work of excavating remains.

“Missions can last from approximately 30-65 days, with teams digging eight to 10 hours daily,” according to the website. “Many factors can contribute to the length of time it takes to complete an excavation of a particular site. Sometimes, the recovery team finds nothing at a site. When this happens, the agency must return to the investigation phase in the hopes of pinpointing the actual location of a site (even if the initial investigation pointed to a particular location, sometimes the excavation team can find no further evidence).”

Because of the sometimes vast size and scope of these excavation sites, teams often have to suspend their work if they cannot complete the excavation within a set timeframe. While they try to continue work as soon as possible, weather conditions, other scheduled missions and additional factors may prevent the team from returning for some time.

“The bottom line is that it can take months to years to completely excavate a site,” according to the website.

“I had the pleasure of working with POW/MIA Accounting Agency personnel during my tour of duty with Combat Camera Iraq in 2009,” stated Bo Wriston, Public Affairs Specialist with the WVNG. “I spent an entire day documenting a large group of both military personnel and civilians who were working to recover potential remains from a battlefield location outside of Baghdad. The dedication to mission and the resolve that these men and women demonstrated to honor our commitment as a nation to honor and return those lost in battle to their homes and their families speak volumes about us as a people and as a military.”

To learn more about the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, visit https://www.dpaa.mil//.