Millions of Americans have gone off to war. Since World War II, approximately 83,000 have not returned home. These are the men and women who were captured but not later accounted for, or who went missing through combat action and were not recovered. Many are at the bottom of the ocean, lost or buried at sea; while others lie in unmarked graves in distant lands.
But, though they might not have returned, they have not been forgotten; not by their families, nor by a grateful nation.
Each September, the Defense Department holds a POW/MIA Recognition Day ceremony to honor those who were prisoners of war (POW) or missing in action (MIA). The September 2012 ceremony was held September 21 at the River Terrace Parade Field of the Pentagon, overlooking the Potomac River. Attending the ceremony were senior Pentagon civilian and military officials, active duty and retired military personnel, representatives of veterans’ organizations, and relatives of those who remain unaccounted for.
Admiral James A. Winnefield, Jr., Vice Chairman of the Joints of Staff, and Ashton B. Carter, Deputy Secretary of Defense, made opening remarks welcoming everyone to the event. Keynote speaker was Chuck Hagel, former U.S. Senator from Nebraska, and currently Distinguished Professor at Georgetown University. Hagel is also a Vietnam veteran, having served as a squad leader in an army infantry unit during the 1968 Tet Offensive. He served in the U.S. Senate from 1997 to 2009. In his remarks, he lauded the military as one of America’s most enduring institutions, and paid honor to those who have without question answered their country’s call, often paying the ultimate sacrifice.
After the speeches, the military staged a ‘March-in-Review,’ which included military personnel carrying the flags of each of the states. The band played a medley of the service songs, and the ceremony concluded with a fly over of army helicopters and air force jets in the ‘missing man’ formation which is used to honor comrades who fall in battle.
In his Proclamation to mark National POW/MIA Recognition Day, 2012, a copy of which was provided to those attending the ceremony, President Barack Obama said, “For more than two centuries, Americans have bravely served our Nation as members of our Armed Forces. Many have made profound sacrifices to uphold the ideal we cherish, carrying wound that may never fully heal and dark memories that will never fade. Today, we pay solemn tribute to service members who bore war’s tragic costs as prisoners of war and those missing in action. We stand with the families who have known the lingering ache of a loved one’s uncertain fate. And as a Nation, we reaffirm a most sacred obligation; that we must never forget the men and women who did not come home, and that we must never stop trying to return them to their families and the country they fought to protect.”
More than 600 men and women, service members and civilians, around the world, work day and night to keep the promise implied in the President’s proclamation. From the analysts and outreach specialists of the Defense Prisoner of War/Missing Personnel Office (DPMO) in Crystal City, Virginia, to the anthropologists and other specialists of the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command (JPAC) in Hawaii, to the service casualty officers and family support personnel serving throughout the United States, they literally leave no stone unturned in their effort to locate, identify, and return, the remains of those unaccounted for from World War II to the present conflicts.
These gallant men and women often go in harm’s way themselves in their efforts to live up to these words in President Obama’s Proclamation: “As long as members of our Armed Forces remain unaccounted for, America will bring our fullest resources to bear to finding them, and bringing them home. It is a promise we make not only to the families of our captured and our missing, but to all who have worn the uniform.
Photos by Charles Ray (C)