Van E. Harl
POW/MIA RECOGNITION DAY CEREMONY 2003
I attended a POW/MIA Recognition Day Ceremony at the New Mexico Veterans’ Memorial Park, in Albuquerque, New Mexico today (19 September 2003) It is a very nice “Park.” They had just finished some physical upgrades to include a new overhead sunshade structure. I had attended another ceremony earlier this year, prior to the completion of the upgrades. My wife and I sat out in the New Mexico sun in our service dress uniforms baking that afternoon.
Today’s ceremony was so much more comfortable; the new sunshade structure, a great breakfast burrito in my stomach, a cup of my favorite Starbucks coffee and a fresh uniform. I can assure you I was having a much better day than any current POW/MIA was having.
It was a pleasant morning as I listened to the presenters, but something started to dawn on me as the ceremony progressed. I have been around POWs numerous times in the past. My earliest memory of a POW was as a small child, back in the late 1950s, living at the Naval Base, on Kodiak, Island, Alaska. My father was a Navy Chief and his supervisor was a Lt. Commander who had been a prisoner on the Bataan Death March, in the Philippines. I probability would have never even known about the Commander’s history, but like most very small children I had an uncontrollable mouth. Even ten plus years after the Second World War, the Commander looked like someone who had been a POW for almost four years. My dad was sure I was going to open my mouth in public and say something embarrassing. So dad sat me down and explained what a POW was and why the Commander looked like he did.
My father told me the story, about when a young sailor he supervised had come back from lunch at the chow hall, complaining about only getting bean soup and cornbread for his noon time meal. The Commander heard the young sailor grumbling and told him how wonderful it would have been if-only he, the Commander, could have had that hot bowl of bean soup when he was a POW of the Japanese.
Now I heard this story when I was a pre-school child and I still remember it. I have worked with and for former POWs when I was on active duty. I have heard them speak and I try hard to remember their stories. As I sat there listening at today’s ceremony, it occurred to me that even with all my contacts with former POWs, they were just that, former POWs. Former Prisoners of War are not current Prisoners of War. Current POW/MIAs are the reason why we were assembled today. It is wonderful to have these former POW veterans’ home and safe, but we still have members of our armed services, both men and women unaccounted for.
The keynote speaker for the ceremony was Sara Gist-Bernasconi. Her husband, an Air Force pilot was shot down in Vietnam 34 years ago. He is unaccounted for to this day, he-is an MIA. MIA means Missing in Action. These troops are still not home and not showing up on anyone’s roster, enemy or friend. At least, no public rosters that is. Where are all of our missing Soldiers, Sailors and Airmen?
Sara has made great strives to move on with her life. But, without actually knowing what ultimately happen to her husband, how is she ever expected to obtain a culmination of the life history she shared with this man? She is not alone in this struggle. There are tens of thousands of family members who wait and they will continue to wait.
To this day we do not know what happened to over 78,000 Americans who fought in the Second World War. For the most part, it is assumed that with the war ending over 58 years ago, those MIAs are dead. You know something; I have good friends and family members who fought in WW II who are still alive? So doesn’t it stand to reason that perhaps some of those 78,000 MIAs might just be around somewhere in this world?
Don’t even get me started on Korea and especially not Vietnam. There is simply too much information available that screams, American POW/MIAs are still alive and being held by their oppressive captors. There are 8100 missing from Korea and as of 22 August 2003, 1,883 missing from the Vietnam conflict. We even have three MIAs from the first Gulf War.
In 1975, Saigon was captured by North Vietnamese regular army troops. Since that time, over 22,000 reports have reached the U.S. Government about possible contacts with POW/MIAs. These include, first hand sightings, the finding of dogtags, crash sites and graves and hearsay reports.
The current Vietnamese Government has been orchestrating a misinformation campaign about our missing troops every since they discovered they had won the war but lost and continue to lose the peace.
In my white, Northern European descent, Judeo-Christian mind, I do not understand why anyone would want to keep imprisoned, the military members of a former enemy, 30, 40 or even 50 years later; well after a particular conflict had been over, for so long. But do I think certain Asian, Southwest Asian and Eastern European countries are doing just that? Yes, I strongly believe they are.
The U.S. has MIAs from as far back as the 1,426 missing military members of the Revolutionary War. But, the ones that really concern me are the MIAs of the Cold War. This country has 343 Classified MIAs of the Cold War. These figures are separate from the Korean and Vietnam conflict MIA numbers.
The Cold War is considered the time period of 2 September 1945 until 21 August 1991: 343 military members who just dropped off the edge of the world and nobody seems to know where and, for that matter, in some cases who they are. Their plane just disappeared from the radar screen or they failed to show up for work one day, at their post on some American military base in Europe or Asia. The families of these missing military members cannot even point to a place on a map or the name of a conflict and tell the world that this is where their loved one gave his or her life and/or freedom for this great country. The term Cold War has a most profoundly chilling effect on the surviving families and friends of those 343 MIAs.
So, as I sat there so comfortably with former POWs and people who have never be a prisoner of anything, I had to wonder if we are ever going to get better at this POW/MIA situation.
We have to have improved and much more accurate accounting of our missing military members. If they are dead than so be-it, but then where are the remains? The families want closure. What is worse than dead unaccounted for GIs, is the idea that there are American service members, who have been missing for as much as half a century. Missing, but they could still be alive, in the brutal hands of their captors. Still alive and believing that their country has forgotten them and truly does not care, or even care to remember. We do remember and we do care, otherwise there would not have been today’s POW/MIA Recognition Day Ceremony.
But as I said, as a nation, we have got to get better at this POW/MIA situation. Find the “troops.” Bring their remains home, if that is all we have to offer the families. But if they are alive, bring our Missing in Action home now.
©Copyright September 19, 2003 by Van E. Harl