THE CLARION FEATURE STORY: Wisconsin senators reintroduce UW MIA repatriation bill for third time
Bradley Burt, business director
Wisconsin senators on Aug. 8, introduced a bill, for the third time, that would help bring closure to Wisconsin POW MIA families.
The bill could provide the University of Wisconsin Missing-in-action Recovery and Identification Project funding, roughly $360,000, for locating Wisconsin-specific cases. One specific case, 1st Lt. Jerome A. Volk of the Wisconsin Air National Guard, has driven the project director’s advocacy as a close friend to the Volk family, who in return backs him locating their lost loved one through the passage of the bill. Passage of the bill means one step closer to bringing their loved one home, who has been lost abroad for over 70 years.
“Everybody wants to come home. Everybody has got a family to come back to,” Roger Roth (R-Appleton), author of previous bill, Senate Bill 602, said when he was serving as senator last session. “Moms, dads, when I deployed, I wasn’t married, but moms, dads, siblings, you know, husbands, wives, kids, and you want to come home and when you don’t, when a servicemember dies, killed-in-action, missing-in-action, there is kind of a hole that is left in the hearts of the family members.”
During the month of September, the federal government honors families of servicemembers still missing, whose remains from previous wars have not been returned home referred to as “POW MIA,” which stands for “prisoner-of-war” and “missing-in-action.” The federal observance is recognized on the third Friday of the month known as “POW MIA Recognition Day.”
“In each of America's past wars our prisoners of war have represented a special sacrifice. On them has fallen an added burden of loneliness, trauma, and hardship,” Pres. Jimmy Carter said during his 1979 Proclamation 4664—National P.O.W.-M.I.A. Recognition Day address. “Their burden becomes double when there is inhumane treatment by the enemy in violation of common human compassion, ethical standards, and international obligations.”
40 years later, during the 2019-2021 legislative session, senators introduced the first bill, Senate Bill 446, where members of the senate during the public comment session witnessed a University of Wisconsin-Madison alumna and Volk family representative, Jeri Volk Barry, speak up in favor of supporting the project, whose letter to senators seeks closure for Wisconsin MIA families through the UW MIA repatriation research project. Volk Barry’s letter shares her uncle’s devastating MIA story providing the anguish her family endures as each holiday passes. Her words drive the advocacy of the UW MIA repatriation project’s mission.
“As a Wisconsin resident, alumna of the University of Wisconsin-Madison and family member of an MIA, I have a personal connection to the bill,” Volk Barry said during the last two bill’s Wisconsin senate public hearings. “My family has not been able to find closure 70 years later. The fact that my uncle has never returned has taken a tremendous toll on our family. To think about the collective anguish felt by the 1,500 Wisconsin families with the missing dead is beyond my capacity to describe into words.”
The project utilizes interns, helps veterans with their college readjustment through a pilot program Konsitzke calls “Boot on the Ground,” fuels hope in the hearts of MIA families, who speaks passionately about the mission of recovering Wisconsin specific cases for academic research by going on location abroad and sifting through soil to locate remains and debris through various data gathering methods.
The repatriation project connected research investigators with the Volk family at Wisconsin Air National Guard where the director grew up not knowing the woman speaking was the niece of Volk Airfield’s namesake when the project launched.
The advocacy mission, through the Wisconsin Air National Guard family, which includes the project’s director, Volk family through their niece and previous senator, continues to appear before senators sharing the benefits of funding the program, which “dies in committee” due to “Failure to concur pursuant to Senate Joint Resolution 1.”
The Wisconsin Air National Guard in previous bills allowed for a senator and Truax Airfield public affairs veteran to advocate as an author.
The previous bill, Senate Bill 602, brought senate delegates together hoping the bill would pass, who represent the Wisconsin Air National Guard’s prestige and lineage. Wisconsin, unlike other states, can allocate funds for University of Wisconsin research that will help speed up the process of positively identifying and recovering human remains quicker than the federal government’s Department of POW MIA Accounting Agency’s outdated methods.
“If you are talking to your federal delegation, we have got to reform DPAA,” Roth shared regarding his advocacy position as a veteran when speaking with Congressional delegates POW MIA supporters can take. “This is a shame with all the funding that they get, that they have not been able to reform that to work quicker and to be more agile and quicker in responding.”
Roth also advocates as a past senator from Appleton and lieutenant governor candidate, who wears many hats as the glue between the state and university, Volk family advocate, Wisconsin Air National Guard combat veteran and friend of the UW MIA repatriation project’s director.
Roth loves sharing his passion for repatriation of Wisconsin servicemember’s remains, especially during the month of September, who is also passionate about seeing Konsitzke’s dream come to life with bringing Volk home.
“When I talk about these academic backgrounds, they are actually inspiring families,” Konsitzke said during an interview at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Biotechnology Center where the funds will be allocated. “They are giving some kind of closure for these individuals.”
Volk’s Last Flight
“You are not forgotten” are the four words and vow of the United States, which commits to honoring and carrying each family’s anguish by committing to flying the POW MIA flag and remembering them.
Repatriation, which requires a tireless effort to locate and return the remains of those who are left overseas, by investing in every effort possible, as the means to end each missing service member’s family’s void with their absence. On POW MIA Recognition Day 2023, supporting Wisconsin missing servicemembers means Konsitzke, Roth and the Volk family may have to wait another session and go through another round of politics before the planning can begin with bringing their Korean War Wisconsin Air National Guard hero home, whose F-80 Shooting Star crashed on Nov. 7, 1951, and face the reality the project may never see state funding due the Committee on Rules rejection before reaching the assembly once again.
“My dad and I attended many annual Department of Defense DPAA briefings in Washington, D.C.,” Volk Barry said during the interview at the UW MIA repatriation project’s planning center. She was visiting Konsitzke and dropping off more photos and archive documents from her father’s collection for his inspection. “The news was never good, and in all honesty, with so many years having passed, I had very little hope it would ever happen. That was until recently when I found out about the advances in repatriation technology that was once impossible are now made possible. Experts can positively identify DNA with much less than ever before.”
From the grand scheme of the POW MIA reality, DPAA reported over 41,000 are lost at sea. The grand total of those missing as of September totals over 81,000. As for the Volk family, news broke during the Trump Administration remains were returned by North Korea, during the 2018 Singapore Summit, totaling 55 boxes according to information released by the Dept. of Defense.
“The 1950-1953 Korean War was incredibly violent, with 36,940 Americans killed and another 92,134 wounded,” Dept. of Defense Correspondent Jim Garamone, of DOD News stated. “Some 7,699 American service members are listed as unaccounted-for from the conflict.”
Volk’s last flight during the month of November 1951, witnessed an impossible recovery after being shot down by enemy air defense artillery fire. The F-80 Shooting Star wing tips, which were gas tanks, fell off and his plane went into a spiral according to the Wisconsin Air National Guard 35 Fighter Bomber Squadron reports. The reports noted over 600 missions were flown during the month of October alone, then increased in November, which are accompanied by a press release from the United States Air Force that indicated:
- Volk attempted to pull up to gain altitude for ejection.
- An in-flight instrumental failure had already begun.
- Two flight members reported the tail assembly fell off.
- A massive engine failure occurred from enemy ground fire.
- The turbine section disintegrated, which resulted in cutting the aircraft in half.
Volk’s memorial at Volk Airfield waits for the day when North Korea will allow the United States to negotiate opportunities for authorized agencies to revisit the site and have selected the UW MIA repatriation project for negotiating peace talks and plan recovery and research opportunities. The Volk family believes Konsitzke will bring their uncle home and continues to share their fondness of Konsitzke’s project as their family hangs onto hope 72 years later. Konsitzke and Volk-Barry, through the help of Roth and the Wisconsin Air National Guard share the story of three POW MIA advocates coming together who will never give up on their lost pilot who is listed as “dead but missing.”
The allocation of funds and their use
The project provides details regarding the legacy of all who are recovered by collecting archives for bringing the servicemember’s last moments and their life. Volk’s remains cannot be retrieved due to North Korea’s demilitarized zone federal policies that the UW MIA repatriation project can negotiate outside of DPAA’s jurisdiction. The folder and files regarding Volk’s last flight have grown exponentially since Volk Barry’s last visit to the project’s planning room at the University of Wisconsin Biotechnology Center where she shared boxes of letters and archive from her father’s shoeboxes.
“My father dedicated his entire life to bringing his brother home,” said Volk Barry. “Sadly, my father died in 2016. It is my hope that one day my uncle can return home and be laid to rest at Volk Field.”
During the interview, Konsitzke shared the back story of the bill. He met Volk Barry at Volk Airfield’s monument not knowing who she was. Konsitzke’s fondness of Volk recalled growing up with his father at Camp Douglas, never knowing the real story about the Volk family’s sacrifice while visiting his monument on his dirt bike.
“When I started the project around 2015, we started working on cases and a family member approached us. Her name was Jeri Volk Barry. She is an exceptional individual.” Konsitzke said. “It was kind of an ‘aha’ moment when she informed me that Jerome Volk was her uncle and missing. And that knowing him and being on that base in my childhood, knowing that it was named after a missing airman it was the ‘you’re on the right path’ moment.”
Volk Barry and Konsitzke met and connected prior to the presentation of the bill. In many ways, the bill has a family of its own, a voice, an anthem, a dedication to bringing closure to all families and a spark lit in the hearts of state commanders who raise funds waiting for the bill’s passage. The project’s voice gets louder each session, especially when the state refuses to pick up the bill without providing answers why.
“So, when the servicemembers are never found, and never brought home, the family is always out there waiting. It takes a while for anyone to know if they are MIA or KIA,” Roth said. “The families are always in the hallways. Through the process of introducing this legislation, I met with family members. You can see it on their face and met with some, who after an extensive period of time, they did find the remains.”
The Politics of the POW MIA Wisconsin Issue
Dept. of Revenue Secretary Peter Barca (D-Kenosha) noted the committee played politics during the past governor election, who did not bring the bill into the assembly last session. Barca advocated for the allocation of the POW MIA chair at the rotunda, who served as the small business administration secretary during the Clinton administration. Barca is also passionate about seeing the passage of the bill who shared his fondness and experience working with POW MIA advocacy veteran organizations.
“For the life of me, it’s difficult to understand because it’s such an important issue,” Barca said regarding why the previous bill did not pass. “It’s certainly not an issue of having enough financial resources we have over a $2 Billion surplus. Somebody is playing politics here.”
The governor is anxiously waiting to pass the bill and bring closure to his Wisconsin families, who believes Wisconsin has a vested interest in investing in the program. S.B. 602’s co-author, Sen. Melissa Agard (D-Madison), through her communications director, could not provide insight into why the assembly did not bring the bill forward. She believes investing in POW MIA families is a priority.
“When ‘fails to pass pursuant Senate Joint Resolution 1’ is written in the bill history, it is the legislative language used to indicate that the session concluded for the year,” Sen. Agard’s Communication Director Chandra Munroe said. “No further action can be taken on proposals previously introduced. There are no ‘minutes’ for SJR 1 and you will find it on the bill history for every proposal that did not become law by the end of a legislative session.”
The previous bills did not pass despite unanimous bipartisan support and co-authoring of bills. Despite politicizing through the committee on rules’ decision not to pick up the bill, members of the assembly and senate cannot understand why. The bill’s narrative shared by senators, the governor, dept. of revenue secretary, veteran organizations and POW MIA families sit and wait for a straight answer from Assembly Majority Leader Robin Vos (R-Burlington) why the previous bills have not been brought before the senate for a vote.
“All bills that are not passed are adversely disposed of pursuant to Senate Joint Resolution 1,” Wisconsin State Assembly Chief Clerk Ted Blazel explained. “ That is the procedural language for disposing of all bills at the end of the session. It does not denote a negative in the sense of a bill being ‘tossed’ aside. I hope this helps.”
The “toss” by Vos was discussed during the public comment address at the Capitol with S.B. 8. Senators unanimously agreed there is no excuse because the bill should not have passed already. Politics, the allegation made by Barca last session, was the reason the bill was introduced the third time.
“There are families across Wisconsin who are still grieving the loss of loved ones who never came home,” Assembly Minority Leader Greta Neubauer (D-Racine) asserted. “There is no reason this bill should be stalled in the legislative process. It’s time Republicans move this bill forward so we can help provide closure to families across our state.”
The MIA repatriation issue, and the frustration expressed by POW MIA advocates at all three public hearings regarding the death in committee, fills the rotunda’s silence this third Friday. Silence symbolically represents the voice of the POW MIA. The deafening silence and sentiments expressed by the committee on rules heard by Wisconsin families awaits the impending possibility the bill will not make it past the assembly for another session.
Several interview requests were sent out to Assembly Majority Leader Robin Vos, regarding the S.B. 602 death in committee. He has not responded.