WASHINGTON — Senate lawmakers on Monday backed adding $10 million to their defense budget plans for next year to offset what they hope will be more expenses related to returning the remains of fallen U.S. combat troops from North Korea in the near future.
The move, part of the fiscal 2019 defense budget debate in the Senate this week, follows a similar move by House lawmakers in June and all but guarantees a hefty boost for the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency if both chambers can settle on a defense spending plan by the start of the new fiscal year, on Oct. 1.
Provision sponsor Sen. Deb Fischer, R-Neb., said the move will ensure that DPAA officials will have the resources needed in coming months to increase their workload and processing as negotiations with North Korea progress.
“For the families of those lost, this is a long-awaited opportunity to gain closure and to give their loved ones the respectful, dignified remembrance they deserve,” she said on the Senate floor just before the 85-0 vote. “For the families of those lost in service, it is never too late to offer closure, and for our heroes in uniform, it is never too late to remember and to honor their sacrifice.”
Fifty-five cases of remains believed to be U.S. troops arrive in Hawaii tonight, but with only one dog tag and no other information.
Last month, North Korean officials turned over to U.N. officials 55 cases of what are believed to be the remains of missing American combat troops from the Korean War. Included in that exchange was the military identification tag for Master Sgt. Charles H. McDaniel, an Army medic from Indiana killed in the opening months of the war.
DPAA officials have said it could take months to provide additional identifications, as they painstakingly examine the remains and compare them to existing DNA databases.
The remains exchange came after President Donald Trump’s meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, and resumes what had been a productive working relationship between the two countries’ defense departments on this issue. From 1990 to 2005, 229 fallen service members were identified and returned back to America.
More than 35,000 Americans died on the Korean Peninsula during the war, which lasted from 1950 to 1953. Of those, 7,700 are still listed as missing in action, with 5,300 believed to be on North Korean soil.
Defense officials don't have family DNA samples for hundreds of troops missing from the Korean War.
The $675 billion Senate defense appropriations bill, in line with House spending levels and previously agreed upon bipartisan budget levels for fiscal 2019, is expected to be passed by senators later this week as part of a package with education and Health and Human Services funding legislation.
Lawmakers have until the end of September to negotiate a compromise between the two chambers’ different budget bills. Since the $10 million in additional DPAA funding is included in both chambers’ drafts, it’s unlikely to be among the sticking points in that work.
If lawmakers can’t reach a deal by Sept. 30, they will need to pass a temporary budget extension to keep defense programs operating past then, a prospect that military leaders have often lamented for limiting their long-term planning.