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Interview With Rear Adm. Jon C. Kreitz

Deputy Director for Operations, Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency

(Courtesy of Surface SITREP, published by the Surface Navy Association (www.navysna.org)

Capt. Edward H. Lundquist (USN-Ret): Briefly summarize the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency – or DPAA – mission; and what your job is in executing that mission.

Rear Adm. Jon C. Kreitz: Our mission is to provide the fullest possible accounting of our nation’s fallen, from past conflicts, back as far as World War II. Many people correlate “accounting” to mean finding our fallen, recovering, identifying them, and returning them home – and that’s the main function that we do, to find our fallen heroes all over the world and bring them home. In the end, when we complete the mission, some of them still won’t come home, because they’ll be unrecoverable. But what we will do is try and figure out exactly what happened to all of them. It’s a huge effort.

For me, as the Deputy Director for Operations, I’m responsible for the leadership, management, and oversight of the different steps in our process. It starts with our historians and analysts. We even have a Navy lieutenant who has a PhD in History on our team, plus quite a few civilian PhD historians and analysts—they’re all total history buffs and extremely knowledgeable. They conduct research at our National Archives as well as at foreign archives, review service records, unit logs, and any kind of war records. We even have a permanent detachment in Moscow who conduct research in the former Soviet archives, looking for leads on losses from the Cold War, Vietnam War, Korean War, and World War II. We have people who go out and interview eye witnesses to the losses, and look at any way to build leads that would inform our decision to send an investigation team to find where someone – or some group – was lost. So if it was a plane crash, we go and talk to the people near the crash site. If some villager says, “Yes, we remember that this battle happened here, and some Americans were killed and afterwards my father went and buried them over here behind the church,” that will show us where they were buried. When we get actionable information where we think we have a good idea where someone may actually be, then we try to transition those cases to recovery operations. That’s where we go and find their remains and bring them back to the United States for identification, and ultimately, to be returned to their families with all the honors they earned through their service and sacrifice.

 

What kind of staff do you have?

The agency itself has about 300 active duty military and a little over 300 government civilians, and also over 150 full-time contractor personnel that are supporting us. That’s our permanent staff who do the mission. Besides the historians and analysts, all the investigation and recovery teams and field operations are under me. Our military team is about half Army and then the other half is equally split between the other three services. Our organic recovery teams are mostly made up of the military members–anything from infantrymen to Army Mortuary Affairs Specialists. We have EOD (explosive ordnance disposal) technicians from the services. We have our own underwater recovery team. We have a mountaineering team of fully qualified Army and Marines mountaineers. We have Special Forces medics from Army, Navy, and Air Force. We have a lot of logisticians – they’re a HUGE part of this effort. We have linguists, intelligence specialists, analysts, and of course admin people. We have communications experts to manage our field communications and transportable HF (high frequency) and SATCOM systems to make sure we have comms with our teams the whole time they’re in the field.

 

In addition to your organic personnel who are permanently assigned, do you also have people who are temporarily assigned for specific missions?

We do get augmentees from the services for our missions–we call them STIAs – Short Term Individual Augmentees. We absolutely could not do our mission without them. The combatant commanders, like INDOPACOM and EUCOM, task their subordinate commands to provide personnel to us–normally for approximately 45 days–to go do a specific mission.

 

How do those augmentees find out about these opportunities?

We have annual conferences with each of those COCOMS and they bring the service reps and we lay out what we’re looking to do the next year. Services are tasked with providing certain skillsets, and they resource them the same way they do for any other augmentation requirement. A lot of times people aren’t even aware the U.S. does this mission until they are asked to support it. We usually request some specific, high-demand (for our mission) skills. For example, we have a fair number of linguists permanently on the staff, but we rely heavily on augmentee linguists. If you’re a Vietnamese linguist in the military, then you probably know about this mission—they’re a relatively small group and pretty much all of them have done this at some point. But everybody that comes to us to help with our mission has a tremendous amount of satisfaction when they get done with their field mission. When they get off the plane at the airfield at the end of a mission, they’re tired, dirty, and have a big smile on their face because they’re coming back from an absolutely great experience that they’re going to remember for the rest of their lives. I’ve never seen it be any other way. Many of our augmentees aggressively pursue and end up back here permanently assigned to DPAA.

Rear Adm. Jon C. Kreitz

Rear Adm. Jon C. Kreitz

We just had a navy GSEC (Chief Gas Turbine System Technician) assigned here as a Lao linguist. He was born in Laos, and did great on an augmentation tour in the fall of 2017. He had been on sea duty nearly his entire career. We worked with the Navy Personnel Command, and now he’s working for us full time. That’s just one example of many.

 

Where are your lab facilities?

While our headquarters is located in Arlington, Virginia, we have our main forensic anthropology lab—the premier one in the world—here on Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam. We have another forensic anthropology lab at Offutt Air Force Base in Omaha, Nebraska; and, our Life Support Equipment laboratory, or LSEL, at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio, which is a critical support element of our work at aircraft crash sites. Last year we renovated one of our buildings at Pearl Harbor, increasing our laboratory analysis capacity by 37 percent. The renovation project also included the establishment of the new DPAA Academy. I’m excited about what the DPAA Academy will do for our mission going forward. It serves three purposes. It’s a facility to consolidate the training of our deployable teams—from mountaineering operations, to terrestrial operations, to underwater recoveries—teaching them how to do their missions. The new functions are the training of non-DOD partners and the providing of orientation, subject matter expert exchanges, and senior leader engagements with host-nation organizations.  I just mentioned partners. We partner with a number of U.S. universities, as well as foreign universities with top-notch anthropology and archeology programs. When our agency was stood up in 2015, we partnered with two U.S. universities to do field recovery missions in Europe in 2016. We’ve continually expanded our partnership program, such that we completed 16 partner missions in 2017 and last year we did 27. This year we have 36 partner missions in our operations plan. Some of them are well-established, world-class programs in archaeology and anthropology, and they become “hubs” for us, and then we have them help us with other universities. We usually pair our partner schools with a university in that nation we’re going to work in. We’ve found that this is a great way of conducting our missions. It enhances the field work for the students, it reduces their cost, and it’s cost effective for us. And, we’re also growing future potential DPAA scientists!

What about some of the other organizations you work with?

We use NGOs (non-governmental organizations), contractors, and other government organizations. We recently conducted an underwater survey mission off of Italy to survey a number of shallow water aircraft crash sites using a French Navy ship and Italian Navy divers. We had U.S. Army divers in Kuwait, partnered with the Kuwaiti Coast Guard and the University of Delaware helping us look for an F/A-18 that was shot down during the first Gulf War. I frequently visit countries to negotiate agreements with their governments for access and support, often developing opportunities to partner with some of their academic institutions to work together collaboratively to find our fallen. It’s a huge force multiplier for us.

 

And do you find that most countries are amenable to what we’re trying to do?

The vast majority are incredibly supportive. Almost every country in the world understands the humanitarian nature of this mission, and they bend over backwards to help us out. But there aren’t many countries who proactively seek their fallen like the U.S. does. The Republic of Korea pursues their Korean War losses like we do. We work hand-in-hand with them. Most of our allies have offices that we cooperate with, but they’re generally reactive in nature, only recovering remains when third parties provide them leads of turn over remains to them. When I travel throughout Europe I often am asked, “Why does America do this? Aren’t you opening old wounds?” My response is, “We’re not opening old wounds; we’re closing them.” We’re bringing closure for so many of these families that have never gotten over not having the answers of where their loved ones are. We have families tell us all the time to do more, and do it faster, but we don’t have people telling us not to find their loved ones.

As a nation, we’re fairly young. Most European countries have been involved in conflicts dating back many centuries, if not more than a millennia, but never had the wherewithal to bring back their fallen. Their history, their culture, is to bury them where they fell. But that’s not America’s culture. After our Civil War, both the North and South went back to retrieve their fallen and bring them home. We’ve been doing that from the beginning. If you look at World Wars I and II, yes, there are Americans buried overseas in U.S. cemeteries, but at the end of the conflict, the primary next of kin – the family – were in the vast majority of the cases given the option to bring their loved ones home or leave them interred in a U.S. cemetery overseas. Nearly 90 percent of our fallen from World War II were brought home to the States. It’s our culture. American’s don’t want to leave their fallen heroes behind; they want them brought home. Almost every country we work with bends over backwards to help us once we explain this to them.

 

What are some of the emerging technologies or techniques that have helped you in your research, investigation, and field operations?

Our process is very data-driven. We have terabytes worth of data, and paper, and microfiche, and old log books, rolls of chest and dental X-rays, medical records and military service files. One of the big things we’re doing is digitizing everything. We have created an automated Case Management System that manages all this data and provides digitized analytic tools with software that allows us to search, sort and correlate information to help develop leads for cases. We’ve just achieved our full operational capability for that system here at the end of January. Last year our laboratories went digital. We now have an automated Laboratory Information Management System which is integrated with the Case Management System. This will help us become more efficient and effective–from the front end work of developing leads, to the end game of doing the scientific analysis of remains– everything in between is tied into that.

Search

Members from the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA), screen through dirt during the search and recovery efforts to retrieve eight U.S. Army Air Corps members that went down with the aircraft in India in 1942. DPAA conducts global search, recovery and laboratory operations to identify unaccounted-for Americans from past conflicts in order to support the Department of Defense’s personnel accounting efforts. DoD photo by SSgt Erik Cardenas/U.S. Air Force

If we’re following up on an eye witness account and want to excavate and look for remains, we don’t just start digging. We have tools such as ground penetrating radar. In fact, we have an office that specializes in high tech sensors and equipment for field operations. But more importantly, our partners have tremendous capabilities that we can leverage. We just finished trials off of Palau about three weeks ago with Scripps Institute of Oceanography and the University of Delaware Marine Science Institute doing validation testing with side scan sonars of new techniques for the detection and 3D imaging of underwater aircraft wreckage. These new technologies and algorithms were developed with a grant from the Defense Forensic Enterprise. We’re improving how we do our initial research, managing and analyzing our data to search for and find loss sites, and find what we’re looking for at those sites.

We’re also changing how we do some of our longer-term missions. A few years ago in Laos, we would have to transport our crews from where they were staying to the work sites each day. It might require a difficult and lengthy trip by land, or an expensive helicopter flight. We’ve developed facilities to allow us to remain at the work site, with lodging, galleys, water and sanitation facilities, so we can make the most of our time at the site—we bivouac on-scene now. We’ve brought with us a decent level of safe and clean living out in the middles of jungles and mountainsides and wherever else. We operate in a lot of places that are very remote and austere, and there’s nothing there unless we bring it with us. Again, the logistics piece of our mission is huge.

 

Are you able to take advantage of modern imagery capabilities?

Yes we are. Last month I visited a WWII B-25 crash site in Burma along a river. Our scientists and analysts were trying to locate exactly where the crash site was before we scheduled the recovery. Fortunately, we had an eyewitness who’s still alive and saw the crash on his farm. But the farm has changed over the years. We have several people from the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency permanently assigned to DPAA. In this case, there was a second aircraft flying this particular mission and it circled around, even while taking fire, and took one picture of the crash site. Our NGA technicians were able to take current imagery and characteristics of the terrain, geography, and determine points of commonality. For example, what is a dry creek bed today may have been an active creek back then. And they were able to overlay the imagery and determine exactly where the crash site is. Now we’re excavating at that site, and we’re finding airplane wreckage; they’re digging up pieces of the gear that the crew was wearing, and they’re recovering remains. So those tools are incredibly important. Today our scientists in the field are both pushing and pulling imagery—they’re mapping out their excavations and feeding into our Case Management System in real time.

 

How about new capabilities to help you make identification of remains?

We use eight different lines of evidence to actually identify individuals, and to correlate what we find with the existing data we have. If we find a crash site in a very remote location, and only one aircraft is known to have gone down near there, and the wreckage has serial numbers that match the aircraft we’re looking for, then the remains we find there should correlate to the men who were missing on that mission. It helps us fit together the pieces of the puzzle. We have medical and personnel records for most of our missing. Our anthropologists can look at skeletal remains and determine sex, stature, age, race and other information. Then there are the personal effects. If you find a dog tag, it’s not definitive because some of those people were given a buddy’s dog tag, when their buddies fell, they grabbed them and put them on to give to their family, or whatever the case. But it’s more evidence to help us. Then there is DNA. DNA testing has continued to evolve. In 2016, the Armed Forces DNA Identification Lab, or AFDIL, is part of the Armed Forces Medical Examiner System. They keep coming up with new ways to get valid test results out of deteriorated and degraded samples. You can imagine that many of these remains have been exposed for many years, or were involved in high speed jet crashes where they burned at very high temperatures with jet fuel. If a crime lab is investigating remains of an individual who died in the past week or so, the DNA is likely going to be intact. But what happens if you have less than ten percent of an intact strand of DNA? Today, more often than not, AFDIL can now get a valid test result severely damaged DNA, and they’re improving their capabilities more every day. No other lab in the world can successfully test the DNA of remains as severely damaged as AFDIL can. This continuous improvement has allowed us to do IDs in the last year or two that weren’t possible 4 or 5 years ago. And they’re getting ready to field some new test procedures in the next year that will allow us to identify individuals that we couldn’t just 12 months ago. Sometimes it’s not just the technology that’s challenging. We just completed an ID of a Vietnam War Navy loss where the DNA couldn’t help because he had been adopted. But nuclear isotope testing, another rapidly evolving technology, just helped us solve this case. Isotope testing is where you’re actually testing the chemical composition of bones. Unlike DNA, the chemical composition of remains doesn’t change over time, not even when exposed to high temperature fires. These new tests tell us where someone has been during different points of their life. It’s kind of like a fingerprint. We can tell where a person was for the first three years of their life by the oxygen signatures of their teeth. We are working with several partner nations to do detailed reference mapping of their countries, and we’re collecting even more detailed samples throughout the entire United States, county-by-county. Right now we’re doing light isotopes – like nitrogen and oxygen – but in the next two years we’ll start testing for heavy isotopes, such as strontium, which will give us much more specificity of exactly where somebody has been. Instead of saying they’re from a region of the country, or a state, we’re going to be able to say, “They were in this county, of this state, during this time frame of their life.” So in the near future when we work with families, we won’t just ask for DNA family reference samples, but we’ll also be asking, “Where did your uncle lived each year of his life?” It will be a discriminator. We had three IDs over the last year that relied on isotope testing.

Many may recall that we received 55 boxes of presumed American remains from North Korea last year. We’ve completed isotope testing on all of them. These tests have confirmed that a large majority of the remains clearly are Americans and those remains will continue through our rigorous identification process. The “non-U.S.” remains have now been removed from our analysis queue, freeing up valuable lab resources, and will be repatriated to their home countries. This shortens the time it takes us to identify Americans–a huge win! Back in the early 1990’s, we received 208 boxes of remains from North Korea—we called it “the K-208 Project.” Back then, we didn’t have isotope testing, and DNA testing was in its infancy. We were just starting the process of collecting DNA family reference samples. One technique we had back then was using dental records to help with identifications (which we still rely heavily on today), but most of the boxes did not contain dental remains. Our lab formed a team to find a way to identify the K-208 remains with the reference information we had available at the time. Sure enough, our scientists developed a new way to identify remains that is now accepted world-wide by the forensics community. Most servicemen from WWII and Korea had chest x-rays taken when they were accessed into the Service to screen them for tuberculosis. We found that the chest X-ray showing the upper vertebrae and upper ribcage including the clavicles—the “collarbones”–could be used because the clavicle is as unique as fingerprints. So from a chest X-ray and even just half of a clavicle, we can identify people! Today, we’ve automated much of this technique. We 3-D image the clavicles and digitize the chest X-rays, then use data analytics to determine the match. We’re just beginning to realize the benefits of this new automation. We initially tried it on the remains of the nearly 400 USS Oklahoma Sailors who were interred at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific as unknowns, and have had tremendous success. In fact, we just completed the 200th Oklahoma Sailor identification and hope to reach 300 over the next year.

 

How much evidence is enough?

Our medical examiners will not identify somebody unless they have ZERO DOUBTS that it’s the specific person. EVERY bit of evidence has to lead to the same individual, without exception.

Remains search

U.S. Air Force Master Sgt. Anthony Sepongviwat, a linguist augmentee with the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, directs other team members during a DPAA recovery mission in Laos, April 5, 2019. The mission of DPAA is to recover personnel from all past wars and conflicts who are listed as prisoners of war or missing in action and return them to their families. U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. George Melendez

Do you have outside consultants to look at cases?

We bring in outside consultants regularly. In some of our older cases, or if we need advice on what our next steps should be, we bring in experts with some fresh eyes and new ideas. They have been very helpful. And that’s important because we can never get an identification wrong, we have got to get it right. The medical examiner has got to have zero doubts that it’s a particular individual. 99 percent isn’t the rule – the rule is 100 percent collaboration of all evidence. Once we identify remains, we notify the respective service casualty office, and they notify the primary next of kin. And then the family decides what they want their loved ones honored.

It appears that the number of your missions is increasing.

There is a sense of urgency. We’re especially running out of time to find our Vietnam War missing due to the hot and humid climate and very acidic soil throughout most of Southeast Asia. We’re getting after all these World War II cases that are all over the world. And obviously, we are hopeful that we’ll be able to get bacl into North Korea sometime soon. My mantra is that we have to continually push to do more, faster—the families of our fallen deserve nothing less.

What’s the most gratifying part of your job?

Everything. It’s a great job. We have a phenomenal team, doing an incredibly honorable mission. I’m doing something that I love doing. When you find someone, identify him, and finally can return him home, you see where the rubber meets the road. I’ve presided over funerals and I see what it means to the families in the end when they finally have their uncle, their dad, their brother, home. Last summer we buried a Sailor from World War II — Seaman First Class Leon Ericks. He had three surviving relatives who knew him before he went in the Navy in 1940. He died during the Pearl Harbor attack. But at the funeral, there were over a hundred family members spanning five generations from all over the country – some of them had never met each other. His funeral brought their whole family together. He was finally interred in his hometown, in the cemetery with his parents, his grandparents, his nine brothers and sisters. Half the town was there. It was so huge for them. And they could not stop thanking us for what we do. Just knowing that, giving them that closure, is huge. That’s the gratifying part of the job. This huge team effort – not just with DPAA, but with AFMES and the services and all of our partners—is providing those answers to the families, to the nation. One service member, one American at a time. I love doing it, Ned. I think you know that already.

By

Capt. Edward H. Lundquist, U.S. Navy (Ret.) is a senior-level communications professional with more than...