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This Veterans Day, Reforms to Honor Our POW/MIA

By U.S. Senator Claire McCaskill   

Every Veterans Day, I pay tribute to those who have fought to provide us with the security and freedoms that we all too often take for granted. As a United States Senator, I’ve also tried to use the holiday to remind myself that honoring our troops requires actions, not just words. With our nation having been at war for more than ten years, we’ve achieved many important advances in meeting our obligations to our nation’s veterans—but there are many challenges that continue to confront veterans and their families, and working to identify and solve those problems remains one of my very highest priorities.

Earlier this year, I discovered that efforts to recover the estimated 83,000 Americans who remain prisoners of war or missing in action (POW/MIA) are in complete disarray. The Pentagon’s recovery efforts are characterized by overlapping bureaucracies, a lack of coordination and leadership, and the complete mismanagement of taxpayer dollars. Tens of thousands of families do not know the status of search efforts, or the likelihood that their loved ones will one day be recovered.

In my attempt to get to the bottom of this issue, I led a Senate hearing to demand answers from the officials in charge of our POW/MIA recovery efforts. At the hearing, the officials described disagreements about jurisdiction, organization, and even the central question of how many personnel are still unrecovered.

But that didn’t compare to the shock I felt when reports recently surfaced that the Pentagon was staging phony “arrival” ceremonies for POW/MIAs using military props and remains that had already been returned to the U.S., in some cases months earlier. As the daughter of a World War II veteran, I couldn’t imagine how painful these kinds of revelations must be for families — many of whom have fought for decades to recover the remains of loved ones who were lost overseas. Above all else, our POW/MIA families deserve honesty from their government, and it’s become clear to me that that’s not what they’re getting.

All this was an unpleasant reminder of the unconscionable mess I found years ago at Arlington National Cemetery, where records were incomplete and lost, oversight was non-existent, and in some cases, the remains of our war heroes weren’t even buried in the right location.

I was upset after finding out about the situation at Arlington. But, as anyone who knows me can tell you, when I’m upset I don’t sit around and complain — I find solutions and fight for accountability. It took several years, but Arlington is once again a national landmark that makes all Americans rightly proud.

I’m upset about the state of our POW/MIA recovery efforts, but am again committed to establishing accountability and fixing the problem at its core. Since our Senate hearing, I’ve asked the Pentagon to provide me with detailed information on how it plans to correct the mismanagement at all levels and have begun working with my Republican colleagues to find possible legislative solutions. I’ve also written to the Secretary of Defense to demand answers about the phony arrival ceremonies.

It is my hope that by next Veterans Day we’ll have instituted some desperately needed reforms, and will be able to assure American families that efforts to recover their loved ones are being made with the competence and integrity that honor their sacrifice.

U.S. Senator Claire McCaskill is the daughter of a World War II veteran, and a founding member of the Senate Veterans Jobs Caucus.