In Search of the Missing: Fern Sumpter Winbush Talks About The Mission of the DPAA

Today is National POW/MIA Recognition Day, a day to honor Americans who were prisoners of war and to remember those who remain missing in action. It's also a day that Fern Sumpter Winbush will once again head into the office and get to work searching for new leads on our missing. Mrs. Winbush is the Acting Director for the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA). The agency began its work as the Joint Personnel Recovery Center (JPRC) in 1966, and its mission is to provide the fullest possible accounting for missing personnel from past wars and conflicts to families and to the nation. It’s a new kind of mission for Mrs. Winbush. The Boston native spent more than 30 years in the Army commanding garrisons and running the business side of the armed forces in Germany, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Korea, the Netherlands and Afghanistan. But when she walked into her first day at the DPAA, she knew her new job would be life-changing. She told The 2 Sides Project all about it, and shared her thoughts on this very important day.

Fern Sumpter Winbush, right, looks toward a recovery site in Laos. Behind her is "the board," a standard practice at every recovery site that includes pictures of the missing and information about who was lost and the type of equipment they used. The crew working on a site assembles in front of the board every morning to remember why they are there. Photo courtesy DPAA.

Fern Sumpter Winbush, right, looks toward a recovery site in Laos. Behind her is "the board," a standard practice at every recovery site that includes pictures of the missing and information about who was lost and the type of equipment they used. The crew working on a site assembles in front of the board every morning to remember why they are there. Photo courtesy DPAA.

What was that first day like?
I spent four years commanding garrisons, and have directed smaller Army units where I had been very involved in taking care of families, so I knew I wanted this job. But when you’re on active duty, you’re focused on current wars and conflicts. You have a “right now” mentality, and you’re thinking about making sure that every man or woman gets home without making the ultimate sacrifice. I guess I never thought about past wars. I walked through the door that first day and thought I can’t believe I’m here, this is so incredible. I found out there are ~83,000 of our people still missing. About 50,000 of those are deep sea or catastrophic losses, so that leaves about 28,000 people that we are still trying to find and bring home. It’s a challenging mission, but a very noble one.

What is the work of the DPAA, and what have you been doing in Vietnam?
We’re focused on providing the fullest possible accounting for our missing personnel to their families and the nation. We search for new leads on our missing so that we can bring them home as quickly as we can with the resources we have. Our ultimate goal is to fulfill our nation’s promise by bringing every service member home. So far this year we’ve conducted four Joint Field Activities in Vietnam. Joint Field Activities usually involve multiple sites at different stages of the recovery process, either investigation or actual recovery. In Vietnam we have ramped up operations. These are very tough cases. The acidic soil conditions, increased urbanization and weather all make things more challenging, so we can’t do more than a few areas in a year. It’s frustrating, but we’re restricted by elements that are out of our control.

Have you been in the field yourself?
I’ve been at DPAA for about a year now, and a few months in I got to go to Southeast Asia. I visited Vietnam, Laos, Thailand and Cambodia, all in about nine days. It was grueling, but I learned so much. At the time we didn’t have any ongoing operations in Vietnam, but we had three in Laos, and I visited one of them. It was in a very remote location. As we were approaching in a helicopter I could see a mountain and the pilot said “we’re going to land right there,” and I couldn’t see a “right there” anywhere! We landed literally on the edge of that mountain. I got out and met our DPAA team of civilians and military and host national personnel. It was hot, and buggy, and we were in the jungle in the middle of nowhere, but they were all there and had been there for a number of days, looking for a pilot and his sensor operator whose plane had gone down in 1966. They had already found a propeller that matched the type of plane the missing had flown.

The site where Mrs. Winbush landed in Laos. Remote locations and rugged terrain make many recovery operations extremely challenging. Photo courtesy DPAA.

The site where Mrs. Winbush landed in Laos. Remote locations and rugged terrain make many recovery operations extremely challenging. Photo courtesy DPAA.

What are some recent examples of MIAs you have located and returned?
It’s been a busy 2016. Our joint field activities helped us account for five Vietnam service members, who were located and identified from excavations in both Vietnam and Laos. Outside of Vietnam we completed the excavations of the USS Oklahoma unknown graves at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific (Punchbowl) in Hawaii and have identified 30 sailors and marines who were killed in the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. Through our partnership with History Flight, Inc., a nongovernmental organization, we have been able to account for 27 sailors and marines missing from the battle of Tarawa in November 1943. And we continue to provide identifications on service members killed in the Korean War, many of whom were part of the K208, a group of caskets which were originally returned to the United States in the 1990s.

Can you tell us more about a specific case from Vietnam that the DPAA recently solved?
The remains of Air Force pilot Major Dean A. Klenda, killed in Vietnam in 1965, were identified and returned to his family. He was listed as KIA, body not recovered. His family had been waiting more than 50 years for news, and his nephew, Gavin Peters, recently visited our DPAA laboratory at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam to receive his uncle’s remains. A funeral service for Major Klenda is scheduled for tomorrow, September 17, in Pilsen, Kansas. His nephew graciously authorized the photo essay we recently posted on our Facebook page. We also published his remarkable story on our website and produced a video about it. 

Gavin Peters visits the DPAA lab at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam in September to receive his uncle's remains. Air Force pilot Major Dean A. Klenda, killed in Vietnam in 1965, will be laid to rest in Kansas tomorrow, September 17.  Photos courtesy DPAA.

Gavin Peters visits the DPAA lab at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam in September to receive his uncle's remains. Air Force pilot Major Dean A. Klenda, killed in Vietnam in 1965, will be laid to rest in Kansas tomorrow, September 17.  Photos courtesy DPAA.

What is the situation today in Vietnam? How many people are still missing, and what kind of work continues to find them?
At the end of the Vietnam War, there were 2,646 missing, and as of today we have repatriated and identified 1,028. So that means we have 1,618 servicemen still missing from the war. In regard to ongoing Vietnam operations, investigators rotate into Hanoi on a continuous basis to pursue leads. Each of the four joint field activities currently underway in Vietnam involves approximately 95 U.S. personnel plus their Vietnamese counterparts. Together, they work on investigations and excavations throughout the country for about 30 days. Recovered remains believed to be those of Americans will be transferred to DPAA’s Central Identification Lab in Hawaii for identification by forensic anthropologists.

What are you most proud of in the work you do, or have done?
I’m part of an incredible team of professionals who are committed to this mission, to finding our missing and providing answers to their families. I have the privilege of attending Family Member Update (FMU) meetings that DPAA hosts approximately nine times each year in locations around the country and in Washington, D.C. That’s where we give families a briefing on the work that the DPAA does, and what we’ve done on their specific case. I hear so many moving stories. Last weekend at an FMU, I met the only daughter of Master Sergeant Hugh D. Whitacre who was killed in the Korean War, but his body has never been recovered. His daughter, Virginia, told me that she never met her father but that she’s been able to talk to the people who served with him. They say he was a great leader and mentor. One of them said that he still has his legs today thanks to her father, because Master Sergeant Whitacre trained his people and made sure they knew how to protect themselves and survive. Virginia told me her mother was in the Army, too. She was a truck driver but had to leave the Army when she got pregnant with Virginia, their only child. We joked that back then, if the Army wanted you to have a baby, they would have issued you one!

What keeps you going?
It’s meeting the families. I came to the DPAA all bright eyed and bushy tailed and so excited. Before I met a family member, the days seemed long and the work very daunting. Then I attended my first FMU meeting. The families are waiting for us to do herculean work. I could not have imagined how difficult this mission would be. It’s very challenging. We don’t always get the result we want, or that the families want. But knowing they are counting on us is what keeps me going. That’s why I love my work. I draw strength from the families and from their stories.

A sign from a recent Family Member Update meeting.  

A sign from a recent Family Member Update meeting.  

What message do you have for families who are still waiting for news?
Don’t give up hope. With advances in DNA technology, the development of new identification techniques, and the persistence of our researchers and historians, many remains we could not identify years ago—remains from the USS Oklahoma and the marines from Tarawa among them—are now being brought home to their families. I also just want to encourage family members to give us their input and support in finding their loved ones. Any information they can provide to our staff and their respective service casualty office has the potential to be the breakthrough we need in their case. Providing DNA Family Reference Samples to our partners, the Armed Forces DNA Identification Laboratory, improves our ability to positively identify our missing. And if family members have questions or concerns, we are dedicated to finding an answer as quickly as possible. We owe those families answers, or at a minimum, we owe them what we know.

And what do you want to say to the American people on this important day?
This is a day to remember those who are still missing. While we have made tremendous strides in our accounting, there are still many thousands of service members who never made it home from past wars. We have not forgotten them. We will not forget them. And we will not end our mission until we bring our soldiers, marines, sailors and airmen home.