Hardly noticed in the 1996 defense bill is a provision that could force the Pentagon to reconsider thousands of cases of missing American servicemen whom the government declared dead as far back as the 1940s.
Pentagon officials tried to kill the measure, saying it requires "far-reaching changes" in the handling of MIA cases and will hinder battlefield operations. They also contend that it will prolong the agony of missing servicemen's families and impose unnecessary money and work burdens on the Pentagon.
But to some relatives of men unaccounted for from the Korean and Vietnam wars and from Cold War missions, the first major change to the Missing Persons Act since World War II offers new assurance that the missing will not be forgotten.
"It better protects the active-duty military now and in the future," said Ann Mills Griffith, executive director of the National League of Families of American Prisoners and Missing in Southeast Asia. Her brother is unaccounted for in Vietnam.
It has been the military's practice since World War II to review the status of an MIA after one year. But if there is no evidence by then that the serviceman survived, a presumptive finding of a death can be made, and the matter generally is not revisited unless new information comes to light. In the past, case files often were not kept active and could not be reviewed by family members.
The revised act, as contained in the 1996 defense authorization bill signed into law by President Clinton on Feb. 10, makes several changes. Among them:
* For missing service members known or suspected of being alive at the time of disappearance, a board of inquiry must be convened every three years for as long as 30 years. The Pentagon argues that inquiries should be made only when new information comes to light that could lead to a change in the status of the MIA.
* No more than 16 days after someone is reported missing, the commander with jurisdiction over the MIA must certify to the defense secretary that "all necessary actions" are being taken and "all appropriate assets" are being used to resolve the matter.
In a Jan. 18 letter to Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Deputy Defense Secretary John White wrote that the certification requirement would "severely tax" battlefield commanders and "divert their attention" when they should be leading those who are "still in the fight."
* Cases of men unaccounted for from as long ago as 1945, which the legislation marks as the start of the Cold War, may be reopened under certain circumstances.
Of the missing--8,100 from the Korean War, 2,170 from the Vietnam War and 100 or so from Cold War missions, it is estimated that 3,000 or more cases may be eligible for reopening.
* The Pentagon must establish a special "Office for Missing Personnel" to set policy and oversee the handling of all aspects of missing-persons cases.
* The Defense Department must assign a government lawyer to represent missing persons who are covered by a board of inquiry convened by the defense secretary. There now is no requirement that missing persons have counsel.
* Anyone who withholds from the file of a missing person any information about the disappearance or whereabouts of that person shall be fined or imprisoned.
Pat Dunton's father, Air Force Lt. James S. Wilson Jr. of Memphis, Tenn., was shot down in a B-29 bomber and declared "presumed dead" at the end of the Korean War.
Dunton, a founding member of the Korean-Cold War Family Assn. of the Missing, believes that the Defense Department will resist efforts by family members to use the new law to force the department to reconsider a case.
"You know they are going to fight it all the way down the line," she said. "It's going to take a test case" lawsuit to get action.
Delores Alfond of the National Alliance of Families for the Return of America's Missing Servicemen hailed the new law as "a whole new ballgame" for MIAs.
"We plan to use this legislation to its fullest, forcing the government to review every 'last known alive' case from the Korean War, Cold War and the war in Indochina," she said.