You have seen the POW/MIA flags hanging just below the American flag on public buildings or over Veterans Memorials all over the country. They bear a white, circular space in the middle of a black background. Within that white space is the shadowed profile of a soldier with a guard tower behind his head and the words “POW/MIA” emblazoned above and “YOU ARE NOT FORGOTTEN” below.
For those who have served in the military and their families, there is no need to explain this flag. Its meaning is deeply tattooed in their minds and hearts. Since 1976, just after the end of the Vietnam War, the third Friday of September has been set aside as National POW/MIA Recognition Day. It is in honor of those who experienced the horrors of being held as prisoners of war and those who fell and have been listed as missing in action in times of war, most especially in WWII, Korea, Vietnam, the Cold War, the Gulf Wars, and other conflicts.
Some 81,000 names remain on the records of those Missing In Action to this day. That includes 72,000 from WWII, 7,500 from Korea, and 1,500 from Vietnam. The Department of Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency and the nation remain committed to searching for and identifying those who are listed as MIA everywhere in the world. This year alone, the DOD POW/MIA Accounting Agency has found, identified, and returned home some 135 MIAs. Their remains have been repatriated and returned to their families, helping those families get closure on the holes that have for so long been in their hearts and minds.
Many of us are old enough to remember watching the news in 1973 as men who had been held as POWs in North Vietnam were released from their captivity and loaded onto planes to begin their long-awaited journies home. Among them was Col. Floyd J. Thompson, who had the unenvious record for being held the longest, almost nine years of torture, disease, and starvation. He was only one of the 591 POWs that were released and returned. We can not imagine the depths of physical, mental, and spiritual pain those men must have endured.
I can tell you that as a combat veteran in Vietnam, my greatest dread was not being killed but becoming a POW. I could not imagine being able to endure what those who were held as POWs experienced at the hands of their North Vietnamese captors.
There were prisoners of war in WWII held by the Germans and the Japanese, in Korea by the North Koreans and Chinese, in Vietnam, as well as in Iraq and Afghanistan. Some of those who were held as POWs died in the midst of their captivity. We can only imagine the fear, the loneliness, and the daily courage that those held as POWs experienced and had to call up on a daily basis.
A couple of years ago, I wrote a story about my brother-in-law’s first cousin, Larry James Hanley, who was an Air Force fighter pilot who was shot down over Laos during the Vietnam war. My brother-in-law’s family had lived with that loss for almost 50 years when they got word from the DOD POW/MIA Accounting Agency that his remains had been found and identified. His remains were repatriated to his family, and I was able to attend the funeral and burial of his remains in Spokane, Washington, and witnessed a family come to closure.
There was sorrow, of course, but there were also joyful memories of Larry James. The funeral Mass and the funeral procession were filled with many family and friends from his youth. The procession of cars went through town accompanied by police and a veterans motorcycle group. All along the route, people pulled over their cars and stood next to them to honor the procession. It was a powerful statement of respect for one who had sacrificed his all in service to the nation.
It is a nation’s duty to remember those who gave their last full measure in service to the nation in times of war. Those who knew the horrors of captivity and came home are remembered each year on this day, and those who are still listed as MIA, who have not yet returned home to their families, must never be forgotten.
We thank the Department of Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency for its continuous and ongoing efforts to identify as many of our MIAs as possible. Those efforts are both precious to those who await the possibility of closure and are an example of the military’s greatest code, “Leave no man behind.”
We at the Veterans Site honor and remember our POW/MIAs on this Recognition Day. We are honored to do so.Whizzco