UW Whitewater interactive journalism capstone final project: Wisconsin legislators reject bill that would bring closure to POW MIA families

The University of Wisconsin-Whitewater capstone fear and loathing investigation of Senate Bill 602 began Oct. 8, 2021, when the bill was introduced. On Feb. 22, the first interview, obliged by the author of the bill Sen. Roger Roth (R-Appleton), questioned the progress of his bill’s development.

By the end of the interview, Roth indicated “this bill is not going to pass this session and it breaks my heart.” On March 15, the decision by the Wisconsin Joint Committee on Finance, a standing committee consisting of 16 members, formally announced the bill’s rejection.

The rejected bill would have brought advances to the Department of POW MIA Accounting Agency through the University of Wisconsin Missing-in-action Recovery and Identification Project, whose program would receive $360,000 for the 2023-2025 session.

The program brings hope to Roth’s district through testimony shared by one of his 40 family representatives, Jerry Volk-Barry, who expressed her deep convictions to the program during interview.

“As a lifelong Wisconsin resident and UW Madison alumni, I have a very personal connection to the bill Roger Roth authored. I also have a strong connection to the UW MIA Project,” Volk-Barry said at the bill’s public hearing on Dec. 14. “I was named after my uncle, 1st Lt. Jerome A. Volk, who was killed during a low-level bombing mission on Nov. 7, 1951. His remains have never been returned home. My family has not been able to find closure.”

Roth’s bill was rejected without explanation nor did the bill go to the Senate floor for a vote. In retrospect, recalling Roth’s interview, members of the POW MIA community were left without answers.

The Wisconsin Joint Committee on Finance did not publish a press release stating why the bill was rejected only a note on the bill’s history stating “Failed to concur pursuant to Senate Joint Resolution I.”

Requests for interview went out to POW MIA advocacy organization representatives Rolling Thunder Inc. State Liaison Mark Herrmann and Veterans of Foreign Wars Wisconsin State Adjutant David Green, who obliged the request. Interviews were also obliged by Jeri Volk-Barry and University of Wisconsin Missing-in-action Recovery and Identification Project Director Charles Konsitzke regarding the news.

Cold call attempts to the Wisconsin State Capitol sought legislators for comment that ended up being ignored.

Email requests went out to ranking members at the Capitol who had influence with the passage of the bill. A lede led the investigation to a ranking member of the assembly, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Burlington), who ignored the interview email request.

An email extended to Gov. Tony Evers sought his reaction and answers why the bill was rejected. The email request was also ignored.

The bill had bipartisan backing and statewide military community support. Roth as the author received support doubling as a member of the Wisconsin Air National Guard, who spent tours overseas defending his nation.

Still, fear and avoidance turned into silence as the question continues to remain unanswered.

Why did the bill not pass? The primary question the investigation posed. Several trips to the Capitol went without answers. Is the POW MIA issue not an issue?

“With the great advances with science and technology, they have made what was once impossible now possible,” Volk-Barry shared. “Experts today positively identify remains with much less DNA than ever before and this combined with other improvements is a game changer.”

According to Volk-Barry, the game changer is Associate Director Charles Konsitzke at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Biotechnology Center, whose allocation of funds would begin the process of centrally focusing on recovering Wisconsin POW MIA.

His program connects scholars from many fields under one umbrella who travel to crash sites overseas like Volk’s. Volk is located North of the Demilitarized Zone in North Korea where Volk crashed.

Konsitzke’s program can work with foreign leaders bypassing the federal government’s impasse allowing negotiation for the UW MIA Recovery and Identification Project’s program access areas that are off limits.

From a viability standpoint, rejecting the bill comes with a price. Families of the missing rely on a failing program at the federal level who “receives $130 million” according to Roth.

As a collective bargain, the group’s family dynamic connects with research conducted by Konsitzke, legislation brought forward by Roth and advocacy with DPAA as a family member by Volk-Barry.

The group’s Wisconsin Air National guard connect converges through Konsitzke’s dad, who served at Volk Airfield where he grew up.  Konsitzke became acquainted with Volk-Barry when his project launched in 2015, who later learned they had crossed paths when he was a child.

Roth brought the POW MIA issue to public hearing as an air guardsman yet, the decision notified him that the POW MIA issue is a federal, not a state issue.

Konsitzke’s research fundamentally provides the University of Wisconsin a chance at developing forensics recovery of ancient DNA and collaboration for student veterans through Konsitzke’s “Boot on the Ground” program.

The UW MIA Recovery and Identification Project focuses its efforts with connecting students with volunteers as one collaborative rescue mission.

With diversity, equity and inclusion at stake, the fundamental decision never took into context the POW MIA are a protected class being represented on all University of Wisconsin campuses.

State legislators failed to recognize funding was not the only item at stake. Inclusion recognizes Konsitzke’s program as a priority for publication and research needs.

“When I talk about these academic backgrounds, the other thing we’re looking at is they’re inspiring families,” Konsitzke shared during interview. “They are giving some type of closure to these individuals so it’s absolutely rewarding. Don’t get me wrong, everything is rewarding in an academic environment.”

Between the fear of public opinion during the upcoming election year and loathing with leaving families on the hook with rejecting of funding, Roth continues raising awareness.

His bill connected a state who supports the POW MIA issue. In conclusion, the investigation recognizes the POW MIA issue is a sensitive issue that will always be priority with Roth wherever his career as a politician leads.


Note: On behalf of the governor’s cabinet, Wisconsin Dept. of Finance Secretary Peter Barca obliged interview. Please click the link below if you are interested in hearing his thoughts.

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