GUANTANAMO BAY, Cuba --
Somewhere amid the land and sea battlefields of World War II are more than 73,000 Americans classified as missing in action. Thousands more are listed as unaccounted for in Korea, the jungles of Vietnam, and other conflicts.
Each year on the third Friday of September, Americans honor prisoners of war and service members still considered missing in action. Each day the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command is striving hard to bring the remains of those service members home to their families and loved ones.
With its command headquarters located on the island of Oahu in Hawaii, JPAC conducts global search, recovery, and laboratory operations to identify missing prisoners of war and service members reported missing in action around the world and return them home. The command?s detachments in Vietnam, Laos, Thailand, and Hawaii assist in-country support during investigation and recovery operations.
?This organization is vastly different than any other organization within the Department of Defense,? said Marine Corps Col. Alan Thoma, JPAC deputy commander. ?We?re the only ones who do this.?
The mission begins with investigating the reported locations of MIA troops and service members killed in action who haven?t been returned home, officials said. JPAC negotiates with representatives from other countries to maintain positive relationships and the ability to gain country access. Gaining access isn?t guaranteed and has proven an obstacle in North Korea and countries with little or no relationship with the United States.
?We have built a very strong rapport -- based off of the Vietnam conflict -- with Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia,? Thoma said. ?We?re regularly in their countries.?
JPAC will be in Burma soon, a country that has been on hold for nearly seven years, he said. As time passes and negotiations are more successful with other countries, JPAC is able to send their teams to search in more places for missing U.S. service members.
?We?re there in a humanitarian capacity,? Thoma said. ?We?re not wearing uniforms; we don?t take weapon systems with us.??Recovery teams, he said, are comprised of anthropologists, linguists, medics, explosive ordinance disposal technicians, and other additional experts, depending on the mission requirements.
Reports of the locations of downed aircraft or ground losses help the teams to locate MIA, find their remains, and bring them back home, officials said. Anthropologists set up excavation sites and sift through every ounce of soil dug for remains of service members.
?It is a once in a lifetime opportunity to do something -- beyond the protecting of our nation -- to bring these service members home,? Thoma said. ?We have the responsibility to locate them, bring them here, and make an identification.?
The teams send all remains and artifacts found during the recovery back to JPAC?s Central Identification Laboratory in Hawaii for analysis and identification, Thoma said, noting experts use the world?s largest skeletal forensics lab to make identifications.
More than 1,800 Americans have been identified since the accounting effort began, Thoma said.
?And we?re striving hard to locate more,? he added.
After identification is made, the next of kin are notified by the service member?s branch, and the remains are returned, officials said. JPAC has the ability to do something very special and to give families the closure they have been longing for. After waiting years, sometimes decades, families can finally formally pay respects to their departed loved ones.
The POW/MIA flag bears the motto: ?You are not forgotten.? It flies with the American flag at the Joint Task Force Guantanamo headquarters. Today at Guantanamo Bay, JPAC in Hawaii, and all over the world, people are remembering and honoring POWs and MIAs on their recognition day.
?If you personally were sitting in a cell somewhere, that is something you can always remember,? Thoma said. ?There is a commitment and a resolve by America that we will not forget you, and we will come and find you.?