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National POW/MIA Recognition Day

SAF/PA 2003 Air Force Public Affairs

POW/MIA Day, 2003

We gather today to remember the heroism and sacrifices made by tens of thousands of Americans who endured captivity in enemy hands, as well as those whose fate remains unknown. Today, September 19, is the day our nation has set aside to reflect on the heroism and determination these men and women displayed in the face of unimaginable hardship. But, in truth, every day this nation endures in freedom is a tribute to their courage and tenacity. 
We Americans are reluctant warriors, but when our nation's liberties are threatened, we are prepared to fight to preserve them. And when we go to war, we pledge to those in uniform that, should they fall on the battlefield, we will do everything possible to find them and bring them home with honor and dignity. 

Earlier this year, we watched the troubling video footage of U.S. soldiers being interrogated by their Iraqi captors. Fortunately, their captivity was relatively brief, a matter of weeks, not months or years, as in previous wars. We were relieved to see the grainy, green night-vision pictures of Marines rescuing the first of these POWs, Private Jessica Lynch. Later, we watched two jubilant former POWs waving an American flag as a C-17 cargo plane rolled to a stop for their Texas homecoming. 

Such indelible images join those of an earlier era, when Navy Captain Jeremiah Denton stepped onto the tarmac of Clark Air Base after seven and a half years in captivity in North Vietnam. Struggling to keep his composure, Denton said, "We are honored to have had the opportunity to serve our country under difficult circumstances. We are profoundly grateful to our commander in chief and to our nation for this day." Then, in a voice choked with emotion, he added, "God bless America!" 

In fact, it was Denton who had provided the first direct evidence that POWs were being tortured by their captors. He did so by repeatedly blinking his eyes in Morse Code the word "torture" during a televised interview. 

Although the war in Vietnam certainly raised America's awareness of the existence of prisoners of war, there have been POWs in every war. 

In April 1945, 2nd Lt. Richard Wellbrock was held in a German POW camp near Munich after parachuting from his crippled B-24 Liberator bomber. Violent explosions killed five of his crewmates, but Wellbrock managed to struggle free despite a broken leg. During his eight-month captivity, Wellbrock kept a secret diary, written for his wife, Mary, back in Peoria. 

As Allied troops approached the camp and liberation seemed imminent, Wellbrock scratched his final entries: "To be free once again and to describe it is far beyond my ability. It is a man's greatest possession, and without it, he finds he is only half alive." Eventually Wellbrock was reunited with Mary, arriving in Peoria in time for Christmas 1945. 

Sadly, not every story of captivity ends with a homecoming. Some 89,000 of our fellow countrymen still remain unaccounted for from World War II, the wars in Korea and Vietnam, the Cold War, and the first Persian Gulf War. Incredibly, more than 78,000 of those are from World War II, which ended 60 years ago. 

The tragedy of those counted as Missing in Action goes far beyond the numbers. Each was someone's beloved son, brother, husband or father. When their country called on them, they left behind all they held dear -- their parents, their families and friends, their cherished dreams - to preserve and protect our way of life. But then - nothing. Theirs is a war story without an ending. 

For the families, their war has never ended. They have endured years, if not decades, of lonely nights, and aching emptiness. They have been held captive in a prison of uncertainty, left to wonder what may have happened to their loved one, what they may have endured in their final hours. Others are tortured by the faint hope that their loved one might still be alive somewhere, praying for rescue. 

Think back to the days immediately following the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center on September 11th. Family members searched frantically for loved ones, hoping they might have been taken to one of the city's hospitals. Pictures of the missing were posted on makeshift walls near Ground Zero, in the forlorn hope that someone might recognize them, or have seen them alive after the Twin Towers collapsed. From their anguish, we could begin to grasp just how agonizing uncertainty can be. As the days became weeks, then months, the grim reality began to set in --the people in these pictures were never coming home. 

That grim reality is all too familiar to the families of our MIAs. They have gone through the same agonizing ordeal, hoping against hope that their loved ones were still alive, but with the passage of time, resigning themselves to the fact that they would never be coming home. Still, for many of them, the search goes on. For them, a definite answer - even if it confirms their loss - is better than no answer at all. 

These families are heroes in their own right. Their quiet dedication and quest for a full accounting of those still missing from wars past is a constant reminder to us that much more remains to be done. 

President Bush has said, "We reaffirm our commitment to those who have suffered the horrors of enemy captivity, to those who have yet to return from battle, and to their families. We remain dedicated to ... achieving the fullest possible accounting of our prisoners of war and missing in action, and bringing them home with the honor and dignity that they deserve." 

The search process is a painstaking one. Recent expeditions to remote mountain tops have uncovered the wreckage of World War II bombers, while other teams continue to search the dense jungles of Vietnam for remains of downed aircraft from the war that ended nearly three decades ago. New advances in forensics have helped investigators identify even fragments of remains, to bring some measure of closure to families who have waited so long. 

Those who survived their ordeal in captivity offer a stark testament to the durability of the human spirit. Rep. Sam Johnson of Texas spent nearly 7 years as a POW in North Vietnam after his F-4 Phantom was shot down in April 1966. Nearly four years of that time was spent in solitary confinement. 

At one point, Johnson spent 72 days locked in leg stocks. "I was completely alone. There were no other Americans around I could even tap on the wall to," Johnson recalled. "There were just bugs, spiders, flies, mosquitoes, and me." When his captors finally removed the leg stocks, they said, "Now we're going to kill you." Johnson responded, "Yeah, yeah, be my guest." But his treatment gradually improved thereafter. "You learn a lot about yourself and how to survive in a POW camp," he said later. 

According to Johnson, some of his fellow prisoners succumbed to the incessant propaganda that the U.S. government was content to leave them there. It was difficult to encourage them and convince them that their government would never desert them. "That's why I've been fighting ever since I've been in Congress as part of the POW/MIA Commission, to make sure we never leave anybody behind." 

Johnson said, "Until you've had your freedom denied, only then do you realize what we have in this great country of ours." He recalled an inscription on the wall when he left the prison camp: "Freedom has a taste to those who fight and almost die, that the protected will never know." 
And so, for those of us whose freedoms have been protected by generations of men like Sam Johnson and Jeremiah Denton, it is important that we remember their sacrifices. 

And it is also important that we renew our pledge to "leave no one behind." America will do everything in its power to recover the remains of missing Americans, or to resolve the fate of these servicemen. Today's generation of men and women in uniform must know that we will keep that solemn commitment to them as they wage war on terrorism around the world, for the sake of generations to come. May God bless them for their service, and God bless America.