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POW/MIA: 1,482 Airmen still missing

POW-MIA flag. (U.S. Air Force graphic)

POW-MIA flag. (U.S. Air Force graphic)

JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO-RANDOLPH, Texas (AFNS) -- Nearly 1,500 Airmen are still missing and unaccounted-for from various conflicts and there are more than 83,000 Americans still unaccounted-for across the Defense Department.

Every year the nation pauses on the third Friday of September to remember the sacrifices and service of prisoners of war, members still missing in action and their families. This year the observance is Sept. 19.

In the months leading up to National POW/MIA Recognition Day, various active-duty and veterans groups, state and local government agencies, and private organizations throughout the country prepare for ceremonies.

Many of the organizations reach out to the military services' respective casualty affairs offices for help locating family members of those still unaccounted-for from past conflicts. For the Air Force, the office that provides assistance to those organizations is the Air Force Personnel Center's Missing Persons Branch, within the Airman and Family Care Directorate.

"We are the liaison for the families of Airmen still unaccounted-for from the Korean, Cold and Vietnam Wars. Because the Air Force did not become a separate service until 1947, all WWII unaccounted-for Army Air Corps service members are supported by the U.S. Army Casualty and Mortuary Affairs Operations Center - Past Conflict Repatriations Branch," said Sandra Kolb, the Air Force Missing Persons Branch chief. "We work closely with the Defense POW/Missing Personnel Affairs office, the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command, the Air Force's Life Science Equipment Lab and the Armed Forces DNA Identification Lab.

"Leave No One Behind" and "You Are Not Forgotten" are more than mottos or words on a flag." Kolb said.

"The sentiment behind those words drives our mission. The AFPC staff along with hundreds of Defense Department personnel work in organizations around the world dedicated to the mission of finding and bringing our sons and daughters back home as well as providing continued support to their families," she said.

The POW/MIA flag depicts the silhouette of a man on a white disk with a watch tower, a guard on patrol and a strand of barbed wire in the background. Below the disk is a black and white wreath above the motto, "You Are Not Forgotten." The flag was designed by Newt Heisley, a former Army Air Forces pilot turned commercial artist. The AAF was the U.S. military's aviation service during and immediately after World War II, and the direct predecessor of today's Air Force. Heisley based the flag's silhouette on his son who was medically discharged from the military.

Kolb said there are a lot of people behind the mission that the POW/MIA flag represents and while other military services have a combined casualty and mortuary affairs office, the AFPC Missing Persons Branch four-person staff shares responsibilities in this mission with the Air Force Mortuary Affairs Office’s Past Conflicts Branch at Dover Air Force Base, Delaware.

"Our duty is to locate and maintain contact with service members' next of kin to provide them with any new information on their loved ones' cases, respond to any requests for information and provide support to the many family updates conducted throughout the country each year," Kolb explained. "We currently maintain contact with about 3,700 family members around the world."

Service casualty officers with the Missing Persons Branch travel to DOD's six to eight regional meetings held annually at different locations throughout the country to meet with family members in their care. There are also two annual meetings held for survivors in Washington, D.C. - one for Southeast Asia and one for the Korean and Cold Wars - during which family members get the opportunity for one-on-one consultations with DOD officials to discuss the details of each of their cases. Families are provided briefings on a variety of topics including, research, investigative and recovery efforts, DNA technology advances and policy developments. The latest regional meeting was Sept. 13 in Pittsburgh.

Since the 2013 National POW/MIA Recognition Day, six Airmen previously unaccounted-for from the Vietnam War were brought home to their families, but Kolb said there is still much work to be done.

"We may not always be able to answer all the families' questions but our team makes sure that a thorough follow-up is done on all their inquiries," Kolb said. "Our job will never be done until they all come home."

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