Connecting state and local government leaders
State legislators hope to fund a University of Wisconsin program that identifies remains of missing soldiers, allowing researchers to focus on finding service members from the Dairy State.
Since 2014, a research team at the University of Wisconsin has recovered and identified the remains of three World War II soldiers declared missing in action.
The group, called the Missing-In-Action Recovery and Identification Project (MIA RIP), takes its assignments from the U.S. Department of Defense, which also provides funding for travel and recovery efforts. That agreement allows the project to conduct its work but leaves the details to the federal government, which has so far kept researchers from looking for any missing soldiers from their home state of Wisconsin.
A handful of state legislators hope to change that by guaranteeing funding for the project, freeing the team to search for veterans from the Dairy State. As written, Assembly Bill 452 would grant the project $360,000 over the next two fiscal years “for missions to recover and identify Wisconsin veterans who are missing in action.” The move would make Wisconsin “the first state in the nation to provide funding to support its own MIA service members,” according to state Sen. Dale Kooyenga, co-sponsor of a companion bill in the Senate.
There are about 82,000 soldiers missing in action, according to the MIA RIP. Roughly 1,500 of those are from Wisconsin, most of them (about 1,300) during World War II (160 went missing in Korea, 26 in Vietnam, and one during the Cold War, according to the project’s data). As time passes, opportunities dwindle to find and identify their remains, said Rep. Ken Skowronski, the bill’s lead sponsor.
“Time is precious,” he told the Assembly Committee on Colleges and Universities earlier this month. “Every year key individuals that would aid in the return of Wisconsin veterans pass away. The group needs those who saw it first. From the farmers who saw a plane go down, to the townspeople that helped the troops on the ground. Those are the individuals that we are losing.”
The MIA RIP group travels to conduct its work, which relies on expertise from faculty and students in the university’s archaeology, forensic anthropology and genetic analysis programs. In 2017, for example, the team identified the remains of 1st Lt. Frank Fazekas, whose plane was shot down in France. Researchers traveled to the site of the crash to excavate the wreckage, which included human remains. Those were eventually transferred to the United States, where forensic experts from the Department of Defense conducted DNA analysis that determined that Fazekas had died in his plane.
The team would be eager to direct its focus to Wisconsin, as “every corner of our state is still missing at least one service member,” said Charles Konsitzke, the project’s team leader.
“Besides annual recovery missions, our historical research team can compose closure reports for those families whose MIA relatives are deemed unrecoverable, such as in cases of maritime loss,” he told the committee. “These reports are far more substantive than telegrams and other notices received by the families during the times of war.”
The bill has broad bipartisan support and passed unanimously out of the Committee on Colleges and Universities last week. The Senate version of the bill is awaiting a vote from the Committee on Transportation, Veterans and Military Affairs. Skowronski is hopeful it will pass both chambers and be signed by Gov. Tony Evers in December.
“This bill will not bring everyone home,” he said. “But it will bring closure to many families each year.”
Kate Elizabeth Queram is a Staff Correspondent for Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C.