As a school kid in the 1970’s, I remember seeing the six letters “POW” and “MIA” on bumper stickers, billboards, and flags and wondering, “What do they mean?” and “Does it stand for something, or is it just a person or new fad?” I wasn’t sure, and as a know-it-all middle schooler, I wasn’t about to ask.
Fate and good teachers intervened, and by the time I entered high school the mystery was solved. A “POW" was a Prisoner of War and an "MIA" was someone Missing in Action. Simply put, they were men who had gone off to fight and hadn’t returned.
But I wanted to know more.
I was especially intrigued by the now-iconic black and white flag that I saw at parades and government buildings and on leather-clad, bearded, Harley-driving Vietnam vets. The four words, “You Are Not Forgotten,” seemed to say it all.
From that point on, I learned everything I could about the Vietnam War (the flag was originally designed to bring attention to Vietnam veterans).
I watched movies and documentaries, browsed through old copies of Life magazine and National Geographic, and read books about US servicemen who had fought in and flown over the jungles of Southeast Asia. It was the beginning of a lifelong fascination with our country’s wars and the men who fought in them.
Today, September 15, is National POW/MIA Recognition Day in the United States, and although four decades have passed since my freshman year in high school, I’m still learning about the young men who fought in Vietnam and never returned.
But POW’s and MIA’s are not unique to Vietnam.
There are over 83,000 US servicemen listed as "missing" since the beginning of World War II: over 7,000 from the Korean War, 1,600 from the Vietnam War, and 132 from the Cold War and post-1991 conflicts. The remaining – over 73,000 - were lost in World War II, with the US government’s Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA) estimating over half were “lost at sea."
What’s easy to forget (but not for their families) is that each person who didn’t come home created a crushing, painful void in the lives of those they left behind. Mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, wives, and young sons and daughters would spend years, or in many cases the rest of their lives, wondering, “What happened?”
Tragically, thousands of POW/MIA families will never get an answer. There will be no closure.
But for missing servicemen and their families, today is a powerful and poignant reminder that “You are not forgotten.”
We will always remember. Semper Fidelis!