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POW/MIA return ceremonies purely 'symbolic,' DoD admits

Oct. 10, 2013 - 06:00AM   |  
US Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command hosts an Arriv
An honor detail comprised of joint military members escorts a flag-draped transfer case from a U.S. Air Force C-17 Globemaster III during the U.S. Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command Arrival Ceremony, Nov. 30, 2012, at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam. (Tech. Sgt. Michael Holzworth/Air Force)
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Military officials have acknowledged that for years they have staging the so-called “arrival ceremonies” during which the recovered remains of troops who went missing in past wars are ceremoniously removed from a military plane in a flag-draped coffin.

The ceremonies on the tarmac at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam in Hawaii typically include honor guards and families who believe they are watching the arrival of the missing-in-action veterans, mostly from Korea and World War II.

But following an investigation by NBC News, military officials now say the remains are usually brought over from a nearby forensics lab, where they arrived days or weeks before. And the plane from which the remains are removed did not actually bring the remains to Hawaii but are just “static aircraft” brought in for the ceremony.

The ceremonies are “symbolic in nature, with the purpose of honoring those Americans who made the ultimate sacrifice in support of our nation,” the Defense Department said in a statement to NBC News.

“Based on how media announcements and ceremony remarks are currently written, it is understandable how these ‘arrival’ ceremonies might be misinterpreted, leading one to believe the ceremonies are ‘dignified transfer ceremonies,’ which they are not,” the statement said.

When the remains actually arrive in Hawaii from recovery sites in places like Korea or Vietnam, the forensic scientists do now know whether they are in fact those of an American service member. Only after extensive testing and analysis are the identities confirmed and an “arrival ceremony” scheduled.

The statement said the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command officially renamed them “honors ceremonies” to “more accurately reflect the purpose of these events.” However, the command has continued to use the phrase “arrival ceremony” in public statements.

The disclosure is the latest embarrassment for the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command. In July The Associated Press reported that an internal investigation found that the organization was woefully inept and inefficient and relied on scientifically dubious evidence. The internal report concluded that the command was so poorly managed that it risked descending from “dysfunction to total failure,” according to the AP report.

Congress launched an investigation and audit of the command earlier this year.

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