"Had there been an extended war and extended negotiations to secure the return of prisoners, the name of neither one would have appeared on any list of POW/MIAs being sought."
The Gulf War is not yet history, but the brief span of fighting provided several examples of the inability of the U.S. Government to cope with the problems of accounting for the missing-examples which are still fresh from the newspapers.

Inaccurate battle casualty reporting resulted in the next-of-kin of Daniel J.Stamaris and Troy A. Dunlap being officially notified by DOD that the soldiers had been Killed in Action (KIA); in fact, these men were slightly wounded or taken prisoner by the enemy. Several other soldiers-Major Rhonda Cornum for example---were taken prisoner by the enemy but were not listed as POW or MIA or KIA; their subsequent release by the Iraqis came as a surprise to the American public and the national media.

But the most bizarre case was that of SPC.Melissa Rathbun-Nealy. SPC Rathbun-Nealy and SPC David Lockett were co-drivers of a HET (Heavy Equipment Transport), captured by Iraqi soldiers after their HET and another one became separated from a convoy. As the two vehicles proceeded north, they came under enemy fire. The second vehicle managed to escape, but Rathbun-Nealy and Lockett were surrounded and captured.

After her capture by Iraqi forces, Rathbun-Nealy's duty status was initially listed as "unknown," then changed to "missing." However, she was never listed as "missing in action" (MIA) or "Prisoner of War" (POW). It should be noted that "missing," under U.S. Army regulations, is quite distinct from MIA. "Missing" is reserved for personnel unaccounted for in non-combat operations. From the Army's point of view, the convoy was a non-combat operation, even though it was under heavy enemy fire. Therefore, Rathbun-Nealy and Lockett were never listed as MIA or POW, even though the Army had information that they had been captured under fire. This distinction is an important illustration of how DOD uses technical distinctions to avoid a finding of POW/MIA.

In a letter to Mr. and Mrs. Leo Rathbun, Lt. Colonel J.G.Cole, Chief POW/MIA Affairs, demonstrates how DOD, even in real-time cases, fails to follow up obvious leads or to ask obvious questions. In the narrative that follows, it should be kept in mind that Rathbun-Nealy and Lockett must have been an astonishing pair of prisoners to the Iraqi mindset because Rathbun-Nealy is a white Caucasian female, and Lockett is an African-American male. Since Major Cornum was the only other U.S. female prisoner, it should not have been hard in Iraq to seek out a pair of prisoners fitting the description of a white female and a black male.

Colonel Cole wrote:

At approximately 3 p.m., (January 30, 1991) just north of Khafji, the convoy drove by a Saudi M-60 tank that had recently received extensive battle damage and was partially blocking the road. The occupants of the second HET then heard two explosions and the sound of debris striking their vehicle, observed what they perceived to be enemy troops ahead near the archway into town, and immediately initiated a U-turn along the road. At this time they estimated that they were 100-150 meters behind the lead vehicle, which was continuing north. After completing the turn, the crew looked back and saw that the other HET [driven by Rathbun-Nealy and Lockett] had tried to turn about, but had become stuck. Melissa and SPC Lockett were observed to be still in their vehicle as the enemy troops approached. There was no indication that they attempted to return fire or flee.

Last seen being surrounded by enemy troops, Rathbun-Nealy and Lockett were listed as "missing." But DOD had more information as well. Colonel Cole wrote further:

There were no signs of fighting or blood, but personal gear had been scattered around the area, and weapons were missing. As the Marines were searching around the vehicle shouting for the soldiers, they were confronted by several Iraqi foot soldiers at the HET and an armored personnel carrier approximately 50 meters north, headed in their direction. No shots were exchanged by the Marines who departed the area and called in attack helicopter support which destroyed the APC within 30 meters of the HET...The Marines returned to the area the following morning where they collected some of the personal equipment and found the vehicle running but found no trace of Melissa or SPC Lockett....During the battle in and around Khafji several Iraqi soldiers were captured.

One would assume that the capture of Iraqi solders in the area would have given the opportunity to find out positively whether or not the pair had been captured. And indeed the Iraqi solders gave such information:

Following interrogation of the enemy prisoners of war by Saudi forces, two reports were received. One concerned information provided by an Iraqi lieutenant who said he had witnessed the capture of an American male and female. He further stated that both had been injured and that the white female had sustained an injury to her arm. The second report received from Saudi forces concerned two other Iraqi prisoners of war from a captured patrol who indicated they had seen a white female and a black male near the city of Bashrah, Kuwait [not far from the site of the abandoned HET.]

To the lay observer, this sounds like a good "live-sighting" report, based on circumstances that almost exactly dovetail with the circumstances of the missing soldiers. But when Mr.Leo Rathbun asked Colonel Cole why his daughter was not listed as MIA, Cole replied that the Iraqi officer could not make "a positive identification"---as though there were hundreds of pairs of white females and black male soldiers captured in the area.

Colonel cole explained further that the U.S. interrogators had no current picture of SPC Rathbun-Nealy to show the Iraqi officer (although, of course her picture was appearing in every newspaper in the Western World.) Had they thought of it, no doubt DOD would have demanded that the Iraqi witnesses produce the fingerprints of the captured pair before accepting the live-sighting report as genuine.

Because there was no "positive identification" Rathbun-Nealy and Lockett could not be listed as POW/MIA. Had there been an extended war and extended negotiations to secure the return of prisoners, the name of neither one would have appeared on any list of POW/MIAs being sought. They were listed only as "missing", that is, unaccounted for but no known to be in enemy hands. Had a difficult negotiation been required to secure a return of listed POW/MIAs, Iraq need never have returned Rathbun-Nealy and Lockett because they were not on the list. Fortunately. the war was so brief and so powerful that all prisoners were returned without question.

The case of SPC Rathbun-Nealy and SPC Lockett is a vivid illustration to keep in mind when considering the bureaucratic mindset that refuses to go outside of artificial restrictions in order to find real people. If the case had been prolonged, if the report had come months or even years later, if the vivid memories of the event had gathered dust in DOD files, the same facts would have rung true.

See Historical Precedents