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National POW/MIA Recognition Day

SAF/PA 2002 Air Force Public Affairs

POW/MIA Day, 2002

Distinguished visitors, ladies and gentlemen. Thank you for joining us as we reflect upon the extraordinary sacrifices made on behalf of this country by former American Prisoners of War, as well as by those who are still unaccounted for. 

Today is a time to remember. To remember the faces of the prisoners of war. To remember the names of those missing in action. And to remember - and reaffirm -- the pledge our nation's leaders have made to account for every serviceman who did not come home. This is a pledge which also holds true for today's service men and women. They can bravely and confidently serve in Afghanistan and other theaters of the war on terror, knowing that, if they do fall in battle, our nation will do everything in its power to bring them home. 

Today we honor all former prisoners of war. They have endured one of the greatest challenges anyone - especially an American - can face, the loss of personal liberty. 

Throughout our history, we've stood ready against those who would try to dominate the world. We have continued to defend the principles of freedom and liberty in wars and conflicts throughout the world, throughout this century. 

As in all hostile situations, the risks were great. Lives were lost. Many endured unimaginable hardships as prisoners of war. Many remain unaccounted for, and our nation's senior leadership demands a full accounting. 

Our late President John F. Kennedy captures best the sentiment of our leaders when he said:

"A Nation reveals itself not only by the men it produces, but also by the men it honors, the men it remembers." 

Today we honor our nation's heroes who knew the hostility of war and the anguish of captivity. We pause and, through the commemoration of POW/MIA day, honor all of America's patriots who sacrificed their freedom and their lives for their country. 

The POW/MIA issue was brought to the forefront during the Vietnam War, an unpopular and controversial war. Americans, who fought in Southeast Asia, didn't determine the political and military conditions there. Yet, it was their thankless task to give up their youth. 

Decades have passed since the end of the conflict in Southeast Asia 

- Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. We rejoiced when 591 POWs stepped on American soil during "Operations Homecoming" in 1973. But we were sickened and dismayed to hear their stories of hardships endured. 

We also wondered - where are the others? 

Have no doubt about it: the president, secretary of defense and senior leadership are committed to resolving the issue. The return of all Americans still held against their will, the fullest accounting for those still missing, and the repatriation of all recoverable remains of those who died -- those are objectives of highest priority for the United States. 

Today we must unite and vow in our hearts that we will never forget our special comrades, the missing. 

British philosopher John Stuart Mill once remarked that no one is more miserable than people who have nothing they're willing to fight for. On the other side of the coin, no one is more noble than those who believe in something so deeply they're willing to sacrifice everything for it. 

If history has taught us anything, it is that Americans will bear any hardship, will overcome any obstacle and will conquer any foe in the pursuit of liberty and justice - for themselves, their children, their countrymen, and others whose faces they'll never see. 

We can never forget those who answered our call to fight for freedom - for their efforts and sacrifice helped build today's strong foundation which drives us forward. In the dark hours of war and conflict, America's POWs and MIAs answered freedom's call. We recognize their sacrifice and our obligation to them and their families. 

Since Joint Task Force-Full Accounting was officially established in 1992, we have worked tirelessly to bring our fallen comrades home from the war in Southeast Asia. 

Although the United States has been unable to prove Americans are still being held against their will, we can't rule out that possibility. Live-sighting reports of Americans continue to get the highest priority and resources. Cases are all channeled to the Defense Intelligence Agency for analysis. A case is not closed until the man is returned alive, his identifiable remains are repatriated or there is convincing information why neither is possible. 

These are cold, hard facts: still today, more than 1,905 are missing and unaccounted for from our conflict in Southeast Asia. Every year we move slowly toward decreasing the numbers, but it can be an agonizingly slow process. After World War II, more than 75,000 were missing; after the Korean conflict, more than 8,100 are still missing. We are working with the Russians in a joint commission to examine and investigate long-sealed documents to discover the fate of Cold War victims, such as reconnaissance aircrews lost along borders of Communist-controlled territory. 

Much remains to be done, and we will not rest in our efforts. We realize that results are the only measure for determining real success. 

However, I don't want you to walk away today focusing on numbers. I'd rather you remember that these numbers are fathers, husbands, brothers and sons. The families remember. We all must remember, too. 

Remembering is what POW/MIA day is for. And for a society that demands liberty as much as we do, we must not allow the sacrifices of these patriots to pass from our nation's consciousness. America owes these brave men and women our eternal gratitude. 

We are also indebted to their families. They stood by with courage as those they loved proudly answered America's call to defend the freedom we enjoy today. Many of these families have suffered decades of pain not knowing with certainty the final fate of their loved ones. 

We recognize their sacrifices. We owe a debt of gratitude to the families for their dedication in seeking the truth and their determination through many years of waiting. 

The men and women of the Air Force and the Department of Defense will continue to strive toward the goal of the fullest possible accounting of those who are still missing. We believe our missing comrades and their families along with the American people deserve no less. 

As Daniel Webster observed more than 150 years ago: 

"God grants liberty only to those who love it, and are always ready to guard and defend it." 

We've been granted that liberty for more than two hundred years, thanks to the sacrifices of countless fighting men and women. 

You just have to look back one year to the heart-stopping images from the tragic events of September 11th to witness how that liberty was threatened - and how the resilience of the American spirit came shining through. 

Who among us can cast aside the sight of U.S. airliners slamming into the World Trade Center ... twice? 

Who among us can forget the unforgettable? 

* The Twin Towers crumbling under the weight of death and destruction. 
* The tragic images at the Pentagon. 
* The airplane scattered across the usually serene Pennsylvania hillside. 
* Innocent lives cut short in an act of cowardice and hate. 

But despite the broken buildings and shattered lives ... the American spirit did not waiver. 
A photo that forever etched in our minds captures the essence of the resolve we all felt: the image of the firefighters raising the American flag amid the rubble in New York City. No words were necessary they were hoisting a banner of hope in a sea of death and despair. At about the same time, rescue workers at the Pentagon unfurled a large American flag next to the charred gash left by the hijacked airliner. 

We are a different nation today -- sadder and stronger, less innocent and more courageous, more appreciative of life, and, for those who serve our country, more willing to risk our life for a greater cause. 

For those who have lost family and friends, the pain will never go away -- and neither will the responsibilities that day thrust upon all of us. As President Bush recently said:

"America is leading the civilized world in a titanic struggle against terror. Freedom and fear are at war -- and freedom is winning." 

The fight against terrorism won't be quick and it won't be easy. It will require a long, sustained effort. It will require the support of our nation, the efforts and sacrifice of all her people and the unwavering commitment to liberty and freedom that has sustained our focus for generations. 

Freedom is not free. Freedom comes with a price. Today we remember the POW/MIAs who fought to protect our freedom and lost theirs. At the same time we pray for those engaged in today's struggle to protect our freedom for future generations. 

God bless their bravery, and God bless America.