I am embarrassed. No, more accurately, I am ashamed that as a Vietnam veteran, that I did not know before an accidental reading of an article in my small town's weekly newspaper that there was such a thing as a Congressionally mandated, National POW/MIA Recognition Day. I suspect that many of you who come to this site did not know either. Certainly, given the lack of reporting in the media, many Americans are unaware of this annual event.
National POW/MIA Recognition Day was last Friday, the 16th of September. Of course I've known about the POW/MIA issue and have seen its flag flying beneath the Stars and Stripes on many occasions. But until I read that article, I did not know the history of the movement, or of its flag, its designer, or that on August 10, 1990 the 101st Congress passed Public Law 101-355, which officially recognized the League's POW/MIA flag and designated it "as a symbol of our Nation's concern and commitment to resolving as fully as possible the fates of Americans still prisoner, missing and unaccounted for in Southeast Asia, thus ending the uncertainty for their families and the Nation".
I happened upon the article only by accident, as I don't often read this small weekly newspaper. I was stunned. Maybe my own long desire to forget that war is part of the cause of my ignorance. But it also made me wonder how many Americans really know anything about this National POW/MIA Recognition Day, besides, of course, the families of those who were held as prisoners of war, or whose bodies, or persons, have not yet been accounted for from the Vietnam War.
I learned that an organization called the National League of Families of American Prisoners and Missing in Southeast Asia had petitioned Congress to pass a resolution authorizing the first National POW/MIA Recognition Day, which was observed on July 18, 1979. Since 1986, the day has been recognized instead on the third Friday of September on military bases all over the world, at various locations in Washington, D.C., and in many communities around the country.
This National POW/MIA Recognition Day is uniquely related to Vietnam War. After the Paris Peace Accords of 1973, 591 POW's were returned during Operation Homecoming. Those of us old enough to remember this can still remember the images on nightly news programs of the sickening pictures of the cynical release ceremonies put on by the North Vietnamese captors, and the looks of disbelief and incomprehensible wonder on the faces of those men on the airplane after it took off from Hanoi. Then, too, the joyous reunions on the tarmac when they came off the planes back here on U.S. soil.
The fact is that we don't really know how many of the MIA had been held as prisoners, or who might have died in captivity from torture, their wounds, or starvation and were buried without records or concern. The U.S. listed some 1,350 Americans as POWs, or missing in action, and roughly 1,200 Americans were reported as "killed in action, body not found." POW/MIA activists argue that we may never know the actual numbers.
While I was in Vietnam from January 1968 to February 1969, there were already a large number of men being held as POWs in North Vietnam, and many more would end up in that condition during my time and after I left. While there we never talked about it openly, but the greatest fear for front line troops, and for the pilots who flew missions over the North was not the prospect of injury, or death, but the possibility of becoming a prisoner of war.
The men who underwent that experience know a reality beyond the capacity of most of us. What they endured in physical pain, isolation, loneliness, and the despair that comes from not knowing if you would ever be released from that horror, would have killed most of us. Their courage and endurance, their passionate support for one another during their mutual captivity, required a toughness of mind, body, and spirit that none of us would ever want tested in ourselves.
That there are many Americans whose bodies remain behind, who died without comfort of family or friends, and were simply buried without marker or record, remains a terrible frustration and blemish on our national memory. The POW/MIA issue remains an open wound to those families who have not had the satisfaction of the return of their loved ones, and they continue to live with the desperate hope that one day they might know their fate of those they lost.
I am ashamed that I had to be educated about the National POW/MIA Recognition Day by my town's weekly newspaper. That the article was on the second-to-last page may also say something about our national amnesia about this issue. It is the most painful of the outcomes of that unpopular war, a war that this nation has never reconciled with completely.
My hope is that this article touches some of you and that you will pass it on to as many as you can. These POW's and MIA's were forgotten once; they should never be forgotten again.