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Megan McCloskey: Head of Flawed Effort to ID Missing Soldiers Loses Job

The Pentagon overhauls its identification process.

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Image from Flickr via Michael Baird

By Megan McCloskey
By arrangement with ProPublica

The longtime scientific director of the problem-ridden Pentagon agency charged with identifying the remains of service members missing from past wars is out of a job.

At a recent Korean War family update meeting in Washington, Tom Holland announced he would soon be leaving as head of the laboratory at the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command, or J-PAC.

“You’ve heard about the reorganization, and I found out last week that I’m not a part of the reorganization,” Holland told the group in August.

With 9,400 service members still buried as unknowns around the world, his restrictive policies were seen as overly cautious.

Holland’s impending departure is the first leadership change to come to light as part of the major overhaul of the mission announced by Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel last spring in response to increasing criticism. J-PAC and a second agency involved in the effort will be consolidated starting Jan. 1 in an effort to streamline the inefficient process. An investigation by ProPublica and NPR in March found the agency’s efforts to be rife with outdated science, duplicative bureaucracy and poor leadership.

Holland, who led the lab for nearly twenty years, was the focus of ProPublica’s story, which found he served as an arbiter of identifications and established procedures that set an exceedingly slow pace at the lab. With 9,400 service members still buried as unknowns around the world, his restrictive policies were seen as overly cautious. Under his leadership, only one out of every 10 cases considered was ever approved for disinterment to attempt identification.

Under the new organization, a medical examiner will oversee identifications and scientific operations, but that person has not yet been named

Pentagon spokeswoman Commander, Amy Derrick-Frost wouldn’t comment on personnel moves.

Under the new organization, a medical examiner will oversee identifications and scientific operations, but that person has not yet been named. Derrick-Frost said they expect someone to be in place by late 2014 or early 2015.

The appointment of a medical examiner to the lab’s top leadership position has been met with protest by some of the scientific staff, who claimed in a letter to the Pentagon that a medical examiner isn’t qualified to oversee their work.

The MIA effort will be in flux until January 2016 when the new, as-yet-unnamed agency is fully operational. Some advocates, families of MIAs and politicians are concerned the reorganization will be little more than reshuffling of bureaucracy and are watching carefully to see what meaningful change is enacted.

The crucial step of exhuming the men, who had buried anonymously for nearly seventy years after dying on the same day at a POW camp, came only after Kelder’s family fought for years to force the government to act.

At the August meeting, Holland said that the last identification he thinks he’ll make will be of remains from the Korean War, leaving recently unearthed remains from WWII to likely be identified by the medical examiner— including one who could possibly be Arthur “Bud” Kelder, whose family never gave up trying to find and identify his remains.

In August, the Pentagon completed the disinterment of ten unknown prisoners of war from an American World War II cemetery in Manila, where Kelder’s family believed him to be buried.

The crucial step of exhuming the men, who had buried anonymously for nearly seventy years after dying on the same day at a POW camp, came only after Kelder’s family fought for years to force the government to act.

Megan McCloskey covers the military for ProPublica. Previously she was the national correspondent at Stars and Stripes. She reported from several conflict and disaster zones, including Iraq, Afghanistan and Haiti, and covered military operations in the Pacific.

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