Orlando, Fla. , ORLANDO, FLA. –
The Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA) hosted its second Family Member Update (FMU) of the fiscal year 2023, providing families with answers on their missing family members in Orlando, Florida, Feb. 25.
FMUs are tailored to meet the needs of attendees representing losses from all conflicts. The agency has been conducting these periodic updates for families of American service members who are missing in action since 1995 in order to keep family members informed of the U.S. government's worldwide mission to account for those still missing and to discuss the latest information available about their specific cases.
“We take very seriously our mission and, what I like to call, our calling to fulfill our nation’s promise to bring home and account for those who are unaccounted-for and still missing in action,” said Fern Sumpter Winbush, DPAA Principal Deputy Director. “We don’t take that responsibility lightly. We know that we are the only agency in the Department of Defense (DOD) with this mission and that nobody else is going to do that work for us.”
Up to four times a year, government officials meet with missing in action (MIA) family members who live within a 350-mile radius of major metropolitan areas across the country. These meetings are designed to address the individual needs of the family members while bringing general information about identification and recovery operations to their communities.
Government officials also meet one-on-one with family members to discuss the details of each of their cases. This includes briefings to families whose loved ones have been recently identified.
One of the families who received an identification briefing was that of U.S. Army Air Forces 2nd Lt. Pharis E. Weekley, who was unaccounted for during World War II after the B-24 Liberator aircraft on which he was serving was hit by enemy anti-aircraft fire on Aug. 1, 1943. Due to the continuous efforts of DPAA Weekley was accounted for on July 12, 2022.
“Our family has been wondering about it for 80 years and it just seemed impossible to find him,” said Marva G. Turner, the sister of Weekley. “Whenever my brother and I talk about Pharis we would cry and cry and cry. I didn’t think that I needed this closure, but I find that it truly makes a difference.”
Turner and her other brother, Dallas Weekley, donated their Deoxyribonucleic Acid (DNA) in 2014 and she noted how much she appreciates the ongoing efforts of DPAA during the identification briefing.
Turner added how despite being told that DPAA probably wouldn’t find him, she still had hope for her missing brother’s return. She also said through all the grief her family has had over the years, she’s grateful to now have an answer to what happened to him.
“I can see the dedication you all have and we’re just very thankful of the work you all have done and the compassion you all have while doing it,” said Turner. “It’s just so amazing that there’s so many people involved in this because we go around with our everyday lives and we don’t even realize how many people our country is still looking for.”
Various DPAA representatives encourage families, like Turner and her loved ones, to donate their DNA samples. The contribution of Family Reference Samples (FRS) can lead to previously unknown information on multiple unaccounted-for members. These samples are vital not only to identify those directly directly related to the donor, but to compare to reference samples from different cases still unidentified.
“We collect the DNA proactively,” said Dr. Timothy McMahon, Armed Forces Medical Examiner System director of DOD DNA Operations. “We search our database and we provide a list to the service casualty offices of whose DNA we need to collect and who we need to verify collections from. We had 10 individuals represented today that we had no references for on file and now we’re at eight out of those 10 collected right now.”
Providing DNA is a way for thousands of families to contribute to the search for their missing loved ones. Family members are able to donate their DNA for use in comparison for identification if that member shares a maternal or paternal relationship with the unaccounted-for person.
“It’s amazing because they may come into the lab as an unknown but they leave as a known hero,” McMahon said.
Throughout the year DPAA invites family members to come together, and talk about their missing loved one. At FMUs, they are given time to speak with analysts, historians, DNA specialists and anthropologists. They are also encouraged to ask the questions they’ve always wanted to ask about their case and also learn about what areas the agency will be working on in the future.
With more than 300 family members and 30 government officials attending this event, the Orlando FMU greatly exceeded the average of about 150-200 attendees, making it one of the largest FMUs DPAA has hosted in years.
There are more than 81,000 U.S. military service personnel still unaccounted-for. Of that 81,000 only approximately 38,000 are recoverable since many of the unaccounted-for are due to deep sea losses or high-speed aircraft crashes where remains have been reported to be no longer there.
Despite these challenges, DPAA continues to strive to be innovative, transformational and bring on international partners.
“The DPAA pursues the promise to continue this mission and to be your representative,” said Sumpter Winbush. “Not just for those who are unaccounted-for now, but also it’s a promise to those who are still serving that if something happens to you, when hostilities cease, we will come for you. We will do everything in our power to bring answers to your families.”