By Tom Philpott: Military Update
HONOLULU — James Coyle, intelligence research director for the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command at Hickam Air Force Base here, has spent most of his professional life investigating the whereabouts of hundreds of Americans lost in service to nation.
His commitment to that quest has not flagged in 18 years, he said. But Coyle, 57, defines his motivation more narrowly than would many JPAC colleagues.
“I don’t really do it for the families,” he said. “I do it for the memory of the people who gave their lives in service to their country. Those people deserve to have what happened to them found out and reported.”
As an historian, linguist and intelligence analyst, Coyle over two decades has made dozens of trips, conducted hundreds of interviews, and sifted through mountains of documents to find lost U.S. service members. Perhaps given his immersion in the human cost of war, he has strong personal views on topics like the Iraq war, which he shared when asked.
“We’re in Iraq because we failed to learn from Vietnam,” Coyle said. “You don’t bring democracy with bayonets.”
But most of my interview with Coyle, and with Air Force 1st Lt. Ken Hall, a former Marine and spokesman for JPAC, dealt with the evolution and growth of this unique command. JPAC leads a $100-million-a-year effort to gain the fullest possible accounting of Americans missing from past wars. Half of that total is spent by JPAC directly, with 75 cents on every budget dollar going to investigative and recovery missions.
In the last year, JPAC teams visited Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, North and South Korea, Burma, Tibet, New Guinea, Palau, Albania, France and Washington State. The investigative teams seek leads and information. When enough evidence is found, recovery teams return to excavate sites where remains of U.S. service members might possibly be found.
The 440-person JPAC was only formed in October last year, by combining the world’s most sophisticated forensics facility, the Army’s Central Identification Laboratory, Hawaii (CILHI), and Joint Task Force Full Accounting. JTFFA got its start in 1992, a better-funded version of the Joint Casualty Resolution Center (JCRS) begun after the Vietnam War.
CILHI, since its own founding 30 years ago, has had a global mandate to identify U.S. remains from all past wars. But most remains came from Southeast Asia because the JCRS mandate was to find the missing from Vietnam. By 1992, pressure from the families of lost Vietnam veterans help to shape support for a full accounting of missing from all past wars. Creation of JPAC, Coyle said, reinforced that national priority.
“This probably is never going to end, certainly not in my lifetime,” he said, of the searches to find remains. Numbers tell the tale.
Though 1,849 are missing from the Vietnam War, that number is small compared to 78,000 never recovered after World War II and 8,100 lost in Korea. Another 120 U.S. service members disappeared during the Cold War and one pilot in the first Gulf War.
Coyle, an Army foreign-language officer in Vietnam (1969-70), said America committed to recovering remains after that war in part because of scientific advances in identifying remains and in part because America lost the war, a fact that a lot of veterans from his generation refuse to accept.
“After World War II we had control of the battlefield. We had the Graves Registration Service,” Coyle said. Yet by 1955, with almost 80,000 Americans still missing, the organized search for casualties ended.
The thinking was, Coyle said, “people in war sometimes went missing.” But with Vietnam, expectations changed.
“We didn’t have control of the battlefield” when the fighting stopped, Coyle said. So the view of many Americans was, “‘Damn it all, they owe us an explanation!’”
Fueling that anger, he said, was “widespread belief that Americans were left behind during the war.”
Coyle believed it himself. He saw the chaos of the war’s end first-hand. Having married Ngoc-Anh, a Vietnamese, Coyle returned to get her out days before South Vietnam fell to the communists in April 1975.
Hired in 1986 as a casualty resolution specialist with JCRC, predecessor to JRAC, Coyle said he intended to expose any cover-up of Americans still held captive. Instead, he came to believe the “real cover-up” was how little Americans knew of extensive efforts to find the missing. JPAC contends that of 1,956 first-hand reports of live sightings since 1975, most are traced to “accounted for” Americans. Many were fabricated. Only 14 are unresolved.
“There were 13 years — from 1975 to 1988 — that we didn’t have anybody out there looking for our people,” said Coyle. “So in that time the lack of good information, the vacuum, allowed bad information…to prosper.”
In 1988, Vietnam finally did allow U.S. search teams. Coyle, with his near-native fluency in Vietnamese and a couple of master degrees in Vietnamese history and culture, led one of those first two teams.
Today he feels most of the missing from Vietnam probably won’t be found. The soil there is highly acidic, which accelerates decomposition of bone. Porcupines eat teeth for calcium to replace quills.
“The real problem facing us…is time,” Coyle said. “Time is reducing the number of eyewitnesses [and] destroying, little by little, the physical evidence, including aircraft wreckage, uniform pieces [and] remains.”
Through extraordinary efforts, remains are being found, both from Vietnam and earlier wars. That makes the effort worthwhile, he said.
“As long as people want us to keep looking,” Coyle said, “we’ll keep looking.”
Tom Philpott can be contacted at Military Update, P.O. Box 231111, Centreville, Va. 20120-1111, or by e-mail at: