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Sacred Mission for DoD POW/MIA Agency: Leave No One Behind

WASHINGTON, Sept. 15, 2017 — On behalf of Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, Deputy Defense Secretary Pat Shanahan honored former prisoners of war and remembered 83,000 Americans still unaccounted for since World War II.

Shanahan hosted the Defense Department’s National POW/MIA Recognition Day ceremony today at the Pentagon River Terrace Parade Field. Speeches were followed by a pass in review, a joint service anthem medley and a flyover of two FA-18 Hornets.

Joining Shanahan in addressing U.S. ambassadors from several countries, veteran’s advocates, military veterans, families of those missing in action and former prisoners of war, was Army Command Sgt. Maj. John Wayne Troxell, senior enlisted advisor to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Sacred Mission

“Since our founding it has been our military's sacred pledge to never leave anyone behind,” Troxell said. “We will account for, bury with honor, respect and, if possible, bring home to our shores every one of those selfless warriors who lies within our earthly power to reach.”

Today, he added, everyone in the audience renews the pledge to bring closure to the families of service members missing in action.

“From the jungles of South Asia to the fields of France and beyond, men and women of the Department of Defense have dedicated their lives to tracking down every lead, leaving no stone unturned, to return or loved ones home where they belong,” Troxell said.

“The example we set today will guide future generations and continuing this sacred mission,” he added.

Two Colors, a Silhouette

More often than not, Shanahan said during his remarks, as the American flag waves the POW/MIA flag flies beneath it, instantly recognizable to millions of Americans.

“We thank the [National League of American Prisoners and Missing in Southeast Asia] for that. With two colors and a silhouette, you galvanized a generation to compassionate action for this community,” Shanahan said.

Over the past year the Defense Department’s POW/MIA Accounting Agency has conducted 34 investigative missions and 40 recovery missions, and repatriated Americans lost in World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War, he added.

Since last year's POW/MIA Recognition Day, Shanahan said, the agency has accounted for 155 fallen service members.

Full Military Honors

“By their work, the agency's devoted men and women, strategic partners and host nations secured recognition and full military honors for heroes like Alberic M. Blanchette,” the deputy secretary said.

Marine Corps Reserve Pvt. Blanchette, 19, from Caribou, Maine, assigned to Company K, 3rd Battalion, 2nd Marines, 2nd Marine Division, died on the first day of fierce combat on Tarawa Atoll in the Central Pacific in 1943. He returned home this month, 75 years later, Shanahan said.

The agency also recently repatriated the remains of Air Force Capt. Robert E. Holton, 27, of Butte, Montana, an A-4 Skyhawk pilot with the 497th Tactical Fighter Squadron in the Vietnam War. He was lost on an armed reconnaissance mission over southern Laos in 1969.

Between 1994 and 2011, the Defense Department conducted nine investigations and excavated sites in Vietnam and Laos to try to bring Bolton home. In January a joint U.S.-Laotian team recovered his remains.

“Why did we go to such lengths?” Shanahan asked. “Because we refused to forget Robert Holton.”

And last month the agency announced identifying the remains of Max E. Harris, 21, of Monticello, Indiana, an Army sergeant who deployed with the 3rd Battalion, 31st Infantry Regiment to an area east of the Chosin Reservoir in Korea in 1950.

“After a fierce battle Max was captured by Chinese forces,” Shanahan said. “A year later en route to a prisoner of war camp, he died. We refused to forget Max Harris. Decades later, painstaking research and scientific analysis enabled the agency to identify Max.”

Thanks to such testing, he added, “we can now ensure no service member ever returns home unknown. The work is far from complete but it will go on with fervor.”

Shanahan said that under the leadership of director Kelly K. McKeague, who Mattis appointed just last week, “the agency will strive daily to fulfill this solemn responsibility.”

Shanahan thanked the families of the missing for sharing their quiet courage and steadfastly waiting for answers. He thanked veterans’ organizations for their ceaseless efforts on veterans’ behalf.

To the devoted professionals of the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, he added, “thank you for persevering to fulfill our nation's promise. And to all former POWs who endured, who withstood the fear, anguish and pain, thank you for your powerful inspiration to us today.”

(Follow Cheryl Pellerin on Twitter: @PellerinDoDNews)

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