Over 80,000 American Soldiers, Sailors, Marines and Airmen who answered the call to the nation’s colors are still listed as Missing in Action. Currently there is one known Prisoner of War, Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl being held by Taliban Forces in Afghanistan.
Sht Bowe Bergdahl in Taliban captivity
Most of these men and women served in World War II, Korea and Vietnam. They went to war, many as conscripts and never came home. For many Americans they are not even a memory. We are so distanced from the concept of national service or sacrifice and these wars are so far in the past that most people have no concept unless they are closely connected to a military family that still looks at an empty place at a table and has not had the closure of knowing that their relative is alive or dead. They have memories of the day that someone told them that their loved one was missing in action or a prisoner of our enemies.
Bataan Death March
The wait endured by these families is unimaginable to most people. For those known to be POWs the wait is tempered by the knowledge that their loved on is still alive and might return. For the relatives of the missing, there is only hope that their loved one is alive. For most this is not the case, especially as the time between when they went missing and the present day grows ever longer.
Captain James Stockdale (2nd from left) at the Hoa Lo Prison (Hanoi Hilton)
For those that experienced being a Prisoner of War the wait is one marked by isolation, constant enemy propaganda and the fear that they might not ever their their loved ones or home again. Most have endured those hardships and have survived torture at the hands of their captors. Vice Admiral James Stockdale who was a prisoner of the North Vietnamese for over seven and a half years. After his release he said something that I have always thought both remarkable and inspirational and representative of many of those who endured captivity: “The test of character is not ‘hanging in’ when you expect light at the end of the tunnel, but performance of duty, and persistence of example when you know no light is coming.”
When I was a kid and my dad was in the Navy I went to school with the children of a Navy pilot, LCDR Norman Eidsmoe. Eidsmoe went missing on a night bombing mission over North Vietnam on January 26th 1968. Two of his sons would serve as aviators in the Navy or Marine Corps and in 1997 his remains,were recovered. On December 9th 1999 his remains as well as those of his bombardier-navigator LT Michael Dunn were positively identified by the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command (JPAC).
Members of the Joint POW-MIA Accounting Command near Dong Hoi Vietnam in 2006
For the Eidsmoe’s and the Dunn’s their long wait ended, but for tens of thousands of others the wait continues. Each day the men and women of the JPAC work around the world in to track down, recover and identify the missing. Working in the jungles of Southeast Asia, remote Pacific Islands and the battlefields of Europe and North Africa these men and women labor, often with our former enemies to locate, recover and identify our missing heroes. Almost every month the survivors and descendants of a MIA are notified that the remains of their loved one have been identified bringing needed closure to these families.
As this night ends let us not forget those who are still missing or held captive and those that currently serve in harm’s way.