I recently participated in an inspiring series of events at Vandenberg Air Force Base to commemorate National POW/MIA Recognition Day, first proclaimed by President Carter in 1979 – yes 1979! At that time, only four years after the end of the Vietnam War, most Americans didn’t know it existed. Many didn’t want to know. Many didn’t want to think about the Vietnam War let alone think about those still listed as POWs and MIAs.
That is except for their families, friends and comrades-in-arms as there are 1,602 Americans who remain missing and unaccounted for in Southeast Asia.
Nearly 50 years later, we’re seeing a resurgence of interest, activity, support and effort, but it didn’t happen accidentally, according to Ann Mills-Griffiths, chairman of the board and CEO of the National League of POW/MIA Families. It was a long struggle by some who wouldn’t give up and were determined to get answers, a mission that President Reagan adopted when he came into office in 1981. Aided by several Vietnam veterans who understood much about their former enemies, priority for the POW/MIA mission was established, policies were adopted and implemented.
But overcoming wartime controversies and altering focus to accounting for our POW/MIAs was a struggle. Even today, controversy surrounds the Vietnam War as is increasingly evident from reactions on social media to the 18-hour, 10-episode Ken Burns’ documentary, The Vietnam War.
Since then, an astounding evolution has occurred, thanks in part to the difficult, sustained efforts of the National League of POW/MIA Families whose iconic black/white logo flag is recognized around the world. During POW/MIA National Recognition Week, not only did the League’s POW/MIA flag fly at Vandenberg AFB, it flew over the White House, the Pentagon, the Departments of State, and Veterans Affairs, every State Capitol, all offices of the U.S. Postal Service, all military bases, posts and stations as designated by the Secretary of Defense, all U.S. Cemeteries, the National WWII, Korean War and Vietnam Memorials, countless thousands of state, district and local government facilities, it is even posted permanently in the Rotunda of the U.S. Capitol until the fullest possible accounting has been achieved for our Vietnam War POW/MIAs. During National POW/MIA Recognition Day that flag was carried by airmen, sailors, soldiers, Marines, reservists, veterans at hundreds of 24-hour runs across the world from Vandenberg to bases in Turkey, Afghanistan and Korea.
In reality, it is impossible to speculate on the number of ceremonies, including the Missing Man Tables of Honor and Missing Man formation flyovers, 5K and 10K runs and walk events as far-reaching and imaginative as committed members of our Armed Forces and Veteran Service Organizations were able to put together on military bases and other sites across the country. This hard-earned awareness, public disgust at how many Vietnam veterans were treated after serving in Southeast Asia, were augmented by ever-increasing communication capabilities that contributed to changed attitudes toward those serving today.
Social media advances show how far we have come since the end of the Vietnam War on April 30, 1975. For those who served or are affiliated with MACV-SOG (the Military Assistance Command Vietnam – Studies and Observations Group), fighting for answers, an end to uncertainty for the POW/MIA families, is personal. It means not only our country doing its best to accounting for our own guys who didn’t make it out from dangerous recon missions behind enemy lines in Laos, Cambodia and North Vietnam, but also many heroic USAF, USA, Marine Corps and South Vietnamese Air Force pilots and crews who didn’t make it back while trying to rescue our own. Special Forces veteran Rick Estes, who served one tour of duty during the Vietnam War running recon missions across the fence and is president of the Special Operations Association told SOFREP in a recent interview, “….in Southeast Asia, in Laos specifically, we still have 50-plus Green Berets listed as missing in action, unaccounted for, plus more than 250 American airmen who served valiantly in that war.’
An additional reason that the mission to account for Americans still missing is worth supporting today is it signals to those serving today that should they be captured or become missing, our country will be there for them, that in fact there is meaning behind the oft-spoken “slogan” of our military: “We leave no man behind.”
The truth is, in the past we did. But thanks to new initiatives directed by former Secretary of Defense and Vietnam Veteran Chuck Hagel, a new agency was formed, the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA). DPAA was formed by the consolidation of three previous federal operations: the Defense POW/Missing Personnel Office (DPMO), which was based in the D.C. area; the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command (JPAC) that is based in Hawaii where the forensic laboratories are located and where the search teams are launched for missions to recover unaccounted-for American remains; and the Air Force’s Life Sciences Equipment Laboratory at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio.
Though fraught with internal dysfunction for more than a year, after the initial DPAA director resigned unexpectedly, poor leadership in upper management positions has led to decreasing employee morale. Under the leadership of newly appointed director, retired Air Force Maj. Gen. Kelly K. McKeague, many in the rank and files of DPAA believe his selection and leadership skills, reportedly boosted fully by Secretary Mattis, will improve morale in the fledgling agency. After repeated disappointments, broken promises, little to no transparency, there is reason to believe that DPAA is headed for success. It can’t come soon enough for the families and our nation’s veterans.
Mills-Griffiths added, “In this new era of full support for our Armed Forces and our veterans, the time is now to move out and achieve the fullest possible accounting for our unreturned Vietnam Veterans, and all of America’s POW/MIAs from Southeast Asia.”
Featured image courtesy of National League of POW/MIA Families