Navy Capt. James Bauder’s burial at Arlington Cemetery on Thursday marked the completion of 53 years of work to bring the pilot back to American soil after his death in North Vietnam.
Leaders at the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency said the ceremony serves as a reminder to the public of the ongoing work to bring every missing service member home, and a reminder to the agency of the work still to be done.
“There are more than 81,000 still missing … I don’t think (most Americans) know about that,” said Kelly McKeague, director of DPAA. “But for many Americans, when they hear about the nation’s commitment to our MIA’s and their families, I think they’re struck by the noble nature of it.”
Friday marks National POW/MIA Recognition Day, with numerous military and veterans groups planning events to highlight the ongoing recovery missions.
DPAA has made 204 new identifications of fallen troops’ remains so far this fiscal year, up slightly from fiscal 2018 totals and more than double from the totals four years ago, before the agency was overhauled to cut down on redundancies across the military services.
Officials have a goal of at least 350 new identifications annually by fiscal 2025, one that McKeague said will require some technological advances and new partnerships with outside universities and non-profits.
DPAA has seen significant advances in both in recent years, including eight formal partnerships and less permanent arrangements with 60 other organizations helping with recovery and identification efforts.
“They’re clamoring to help,” he said.
On the technology side, new isotope testing capabilities have enabled researchers to identify DNA with less biological material and with greater accuracy. New aquatic capabilities could allow more under ocean recoveries, a major advance given that half of the known 81,000 missing troops from all wars were lost at sea.
“Right now our limitations are about 150 feet in depth,” he said. “But we just tested out a new dive capability the Navy has … that can operate in 300 feet without decompression time turn-arounds. We’re going to look at that for recovery of a bomber down 250 feet off the coast of Papua New Guinea next year.”
Bauder’s remains were recovered using similar methods off the coast of Vietnam, with assistance from local military officials there. McKeague said training and coordination with recovery teams in Vietnam have risen significantly in the last few years, one of 46 international humanitarian agreements the United States has on the issue.
The most noticeable agreement lacking is with North Korea. In summer 2018, the leadership regime there turned over 55 cases of remains connected to the Korean War to U.S. and United Nations officials, a major diplomatic breakthrough stemming from President Donald Trump’s meeting with Kim Jong Il.
Since then DPAA officials have made 37 positive identifications of missing U.S. troops from the remains, and isolated evidence of at least 150 more potential missing American service members.
But promised follow up coordination between U.S. and North Korean recovery teams has not progressed, a frustrating reality after initial high hopes.
“We believe field operations in North Korea would be highly successful, just as they were between 1996 and 2005,” McKeague said. “It’s just out of our grasp, but we know if we were afforded the opportunity to collaborate with the North Koreans, we would be providing a number of answers to waiting families.”
But for now, those operations are on hold. McKeague said the agencies main focus is for missing Vietnam War troops, because the climate and soil acidity in southeast Asia threaten to more quickly degrade any human remains than in other regions.
Bauder’s name is now off the list of the estimated 1,600 American servicemen and civilians still unaccounted for in that war.
Earlier this year, military officials added a rosette next to his name at the Courts of the Missing at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Hawaii, to mark the end of his five-decade journey home. McKeague said agency staff are hoping for many more updates in the years to come.
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.