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Missing in Action: How Military Families in Tortuous Limbo Galvanized a Movement

May 20, 2020 in History

By Jessica Pearce Rotondi

In the wake of the Vietnam War, families of military members who never returned from service banded together to demand an accounting.

“MIA” stands for missing in action, a term used to refer to members of the armed forces who have not returned from military service and whose whereabouts are unknown. Since ancient times, soldiers have gone to war and never returned, their fate unknown. In the wake of the Vietnam War, families of American MIAs began organizing to demand an accounting. The hunt continues. As of May 2020, 1,587 American service members were still missing in Southeast Asia.

How Many Americans Are Still Missing In Action?

The Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, the agency within the Department of Defense responsible for tracking down MIAs, reported in May 2020 that 81,900 Americans were still considered MIA: 72,598 from World War II, 7,580 from the Korean War, 1,587 from Vietnam, 126 from the Cold War, and six from conflicts since 1991. Advances in DNA technology, increased access to crash sites or battlegrounds in territory once hostile to Americans and ongoing international negotiations have helped bring more and more open cases to a close.

Still, the issue of MIAs remains a controversial one, with accusations of government cover-ups continuing to foster distrust among families of the missing, particularly surrounding repatriation efforts in Korea and Vietnam.

Read More: Lost Tuskegee Airman’s Body May Have Been Found

Korean War MIAs

Members of the Army’s Old Guard carry the casket U.S. Army Cpl. Robert E. Meyers during a burial service at Arlington National Cemetery on October 26, 2015. Meyers, whose remains were identified due to advances in technology, was declared missing in action in December of 1950 after his unit was involved in combat operations near Sonchu, North Korea.

Because the Korean War never officially ended—no peace treaty was ever formally signed—the recovery of American remains is complicated. Ongoing tensions between the United States and North Korea further impede the process.

In Korea, advancing American forces buried their dead in temporary cemeteries, assuming they could go back and claim the bodies once the war was won, as they had in World War II. When victory in Korea did not materialize, access to these burial sites didn’t, either. Then there were the battles Americans lost that precluded the recording and burial of fallen American soldiers—like the Battle …read more