The ongoing coronavirus pandemic is even keeping already deceased American service members from traveling home.
Officials from the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency on Tuesday announced the ongoing worldwide virus outbreak has forced them to end all overseas missions to recover fallen military personnel early, and postponed any future recovery missions until at least June.
That includes planned efforts in 19 countries covering much of Europe and the Pacific. Personnel who had been called home from active missions in Kiribati, the Philippines, Poland, and Vietnam are in 14-day self-isolation and monitoring for signs of illness.
"COVID-19 dynamics have forced us to radically alter our operations, but keeping our team safe, here at home and abroad, is paramount," DPAA Director Kelly McKeague said in a statement. "At the same time, we are continuing to take actions with which our personnel can remain productive in their duties while maintaining the required distancing."
More than 103,000 individuals worldwide have contracted the coronavirus in recent months, and more than 17,000 deaths have been attributed to the disease. In the United States, that death total has topped 400, all within the last few weeks.
Earlier this month, Defense Department officials announced a near total ban in official travel for troops, their families and civilian department employees, in an effort to stem the spread of the illness.
The majority of the DPAA’s workforce is working from home, with limited access to DPAA laboratories. In addition, a family member update scheduled in Miami last week was cancelled, as was a similar event set for Arkansas next month.
It’s unclear what an extended delay in field work will mean to DPAA’s long-term work. A spokesman said the agency remains “committed to accomplish the solemn mission of accounting for our missing service members and civilians from past conflicts.”
Officials in the past have set a goal of at least 350 new identifications annually by fiscal 2025.
So far this month, DPAA has announced positive identifications the remains of 17 service members recovered from overseas locations, mostly connected to World War II.
About 81,000 troops from past wars are still considered missing in action, many of them lost at sea.
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.