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What does "Missing in Action" Mean?

By Alicia Sparks
Updated May 23, 2024
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The term missing in action (MIA) is a designation used to describe the status of a person whose whereabouts are unknown. Although any organization with a missing member can use the term, MIA is most commonly a military term given to active service men and women who become missing during a war or while completing some other military mission. There are various reasons a member of the military might become missing in action, including becoming a prisoner of war, becoming wounded or killed, and desertion. Until the missing person is found and identified, whether alive or dead, there is no way to know why he is MIA. Fortunately, many militaries are advancing their identification techniques and search methods.

If a person becomes a prisoner of war (POW), it means the opposing military captured and kept him as a prisoner. Once his home military realizes he has been taken as a prisoner, his status will change from MIA to POW. Members of the armed services can be prisoners of war for years without their home militaries finding out. If a prisoner of war dies before his home military knows he is a POW, there is very little chance his status will ever change from MIA to POW. There is an even slimmer chance his family members and loved ones will ever know what happened to him.

A military’s identification technology and search methods are just as important if a person becomes MIA because he has been wounded or killed. Until the injured person or the remains are found and identified, there is no way to determine why he became missing in action or whether he is alive or dead. Militaries are becoming more proficient at identifying severely wounded or dead soldiers. For example, most militaries now require their soldiers to wear identification tags, commonly referred to as “dog tags.” Some militaries are even able to genetically identify remains with the help of science.

When a person is categorized as missing in action due to desertion, it is usually because his military isn’t aware of the desertion. Typically, militaries have other designations for members who desert. For example, in the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom, the blanket military term for desertion is “absence without official leave” (AWOL). Once a person is designated as AWOL or a similar status, it means he is known to have deserted the armed services or to have temporarily left without official permission. Generally, desertion is a serious and punishable crime in the military.

Some governments and militaries have agencies in place to assist family members of missing in action members of the armed services. Such agencies might provide resources such as direct contact information to help update the family members on the missing person’s status, regularly updated records of members who become accounted for, and even information about providing blood samples for the agency’s DNA database. The best way for a person to learn about such agencies is to contact the government office that handles military matters.

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Discussion Comments

By Phaedrus — On Apr 30, 2014

@Reminiscence- That's a tough story to read. I'm sorry for your family's loss. My dad was listed as missing in action during Vietnam, but we didn't want to believe it. He was a helicopter pilot, and the military usually knew where something as big as a chopper was headed. We didn't think he was dead, but we also didn't think he was actually missing, either.

As it turned out, he was captured by the Viet Cong after his helicopter crash landed on the way to a pick-up. He was held in a POW camp for a year until it was abandoned for unknown reasons. The status "missing in action" can give families hope their loved one is still alive, but in my experience the status is more often changed to "killed in action", unfortunately.

By Reminiscence — On Apr 29, 2014

My grandfather was listed as "missing in action" during World War II. Every so often, the Army would send my grandmother a printed list of soldiers and their current status. My grandfather's name always had MIA typed next to it. Several years later, the status changed suddenly to "killed in action" (KIA). My grandmother got a letter from the Army explaining the change.

It turned out that he was assigned to a base in Italy near Anzio Beach. Two of the men in his platoon were actually German operatives who spoke perfect English. These men opened fire one afternoon, and my grandfather was one of many who were killed immediately. It took a long time for the Army investigators to piece together what actually happened. My grandfather was not "missing in action", but killed in action by enemy soldiers.

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