In the ceremonies, honor guards unload flag-draped coffins — supposed to hold the recently-discovered remains of MIA service members from World War II, Korea or Vietnam – from large military planes as veterans and their family members watch. The ceremonies, which usually take place four times a year, were last held in April.
But as the NBC News investigation uncovered, the remains contained within the coffins had not just arrived – they’d been taken from labs where they were waiting for analysis, sometimes for as long as months – and the planes used weren’t functional; instead, they were towed into place before each ceremony.
"Many times, static aircraft are used for the ceremonies, as operational requirements dictate flight schedules and aircraft availability," said a Department of Defense spokesperson, Navy Cmdr. Amy Derrick-Frost.
The Pentagon said its own words, used since 2006, had led to the ceremonies being "misinterpreted" as arrivals.
"Based on how media announcements and ceremony remarks are currently written, it is understandable how these 'arrival' ceremonies might be misinterpreted, leading one to believe the ceremonies are 'dignified transfer ceremonies,' which they are not." She said the Pentagon is reviewing its procedures and is committed to conducting all recovery operations honorably.
Got that? These are “arrival ceremonies” and not “dignified transfer ceremonies.” Or they were. Now they're called "honors ceremonies."
"The name changed because they've already arrived, technically," Army Staff Sgt. Andrew Smith, public affairs officer for the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command (JPAC) said. JPAC, by the way, identifies about 80 bodies per year, at a cost of $1 million per body; each set of remains sits in a lab for an average of 11 years before it’s identified, according to an internal report. That same report described JPAC as "acutely dysfunctional," and said it was under investigation from both Congress and the Pentagon.
How are veterans reacting to news they’ve been mislead? Er, not so well.
"If I have been fooled, I am going to be a very pissed-off citizen, because I've been going for years," Jesse Baker, an Air Force veteran of World War II and Korea, told NBC News. "And I know a lot of guys who are going to be pissed off."