Hawaii’s Hickam AFB preparing to upgrade lab to ID war dead
By William Cole
Advertiser Military Writer
Construction of a new $100 million headquarters and lab for identification of American dead from past wars is expected to begin in fiscal 2011 at Hickam Air Force Base as the nation steps up efforts to speed the recovery and return of remains to families, officials said.
Congress recently mandated that by 2015, the U.S. military make 200 identifications a year — more than twice the annual rate now.
The 400-member Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command, or JPAC, at Hickam has responsibility for investigating, recovering and identifying American dead from the nation's past wars.
That personnel total is expected to grow with more search/recovery missions to the field and the new identification requirement. In fiscal 2009, 69 missions were conducted and 95 identifications were made.
Defense officials also are looking at the possibility of creating a satellite forensic identification laboratory on the Mainland — where it's easier to attract anthropologists and where it could be more efficiently closer to the Armed Forces DNA Identification Laboratory, a key link in the identification process.
Pressure by aging family members who have relatives still missing from World War II and the Korean and Vietnam wars led to Congress requiring the identification rate increase.
A total of 74,213 U.S. service members remain missing from World War II, with 19,000 deemed recoverable. There are also 127 missing from the Cold War, 8,034 from the Korean War, and 1,723 from the Vietnam War, according to the command's latest figures.
Some family organizations also would prefer having a Mainland lab for identifications.
"You know how many years we wait for an identification?" said Irene Mandra, national chair of the Korea-Cold War Families of the Missing.
"Many people from Korea and the people from World War II — they are dying, they are elderly and they want closure, and we can't get it because they don't have enough anthropologists over in Hawai'i."
Mandra, 75, got involved more than 25 years ago in the issue as a result of losing her brother, Philip, a 21-year-old Marine sergeant who remains missing from the Korean War.
Lab space to lay out and examine remains has been growing at JPAC. The approximately 22-table lab space at Hickam doubled with a $680,000 addition, and tripled with the opening of a second lab in Building 220 at Pearl Harbor, renovated for $1.2 million.
Johnie E. Webb Jr., deputy commander of JPAC, said lab space will grow from about 9,000 square feet to about 50,000 square feet with the new 136,000-square-foot headquarters and lab, expected to be completed in 2013 near Kuntz Gate at Hickam.
"It's huge," Webb said of the planned new lab space, which will have as many — if not more — tables to lay out remains as in the current facilities, he said.
Originally, the new lab was intended to consolidate under one roof JPAC functions now housed in an assortment of permanent and what originally were expected to be temporary structures.
But the new congressional mandate for identifications has JPAC considering keeping some of the existing lab facilities even after the new lab is built, which would mean even more identification table space.
Army Maj. Gen. Stephen Tom, who took command of JPAC in January, said he has no objection to expanding JPAC further with a satellite lab on the East Coast.
Tom said that meeting the congressional mandate "is going to take a lot more resources and some different ways of thinking."
Officials said there are between 18 and 20 anthropologists at JPAC — experts who are key in the identification process. There are also three odontologists and nine individuals who specialize in analyzing bits of evidence from a battle or airplane crash site.
Webb said a doubling of that staff to meet the congressional mandate "is a pretty good estimate."
A manpower study is being conducted now, Webb said.
"We're waiting to get their final report," he said, "but I'll just tell you, yeah, (the staff total) is going to have to grow considerably."
JPAC will have to compete for funding for that with two wars under way and an effort to reduce non-warfighting budgets.
The accounting command's budget was $55.9 million for 2009 and is $68.8 million for the 2010 fiscal year, Webb said.
An assessment of the Hickam lab released last June found that staffing shortfalls in attracting and retaining scientists sometimes relate to a sense of isolation from professional and academic institutions in Hawai'i, a poor school system, and the high cost of living.
The study, done by the Institute for Defense Analyses for the defense secretary's office, also considered the question of whether the entire JPAC lab should be moved to the Mainland.
The analysis concluded that there would be some benefits in terms of hiring and retaining employees, but it would be very costly. It concluded that "the current location in Hawai'i is appropriate."
Webb said the lab recently hired five more anthropologists, who will be on staff by the summer.
Tom, JPAC's commander, said he believes that some of the problems in hiring and retaining scientists could be alleviated by having a satellite lab on the East Coast and moving individuals between Hawai'i and the Mainland.
"What happens here is different phases of your career, you do different things. So Hawai'i is good to be able to deploy and do that Indiana Jones stuff and go out in the field and dig up remains or climb mountains," Tom said. "Then maybe as you get older and your kids are more mature, you want to move back to the Mainland and maybe continue with our Mainland satellite laboratory and do more strictly research. So we're trying to figure out a way to do career progression."