POW/MIA Day is Every Day
War, by its very nature, is ugly. That’s been shown time and again in photos of destruction and casualties and videos of grieving families and funerals. What we don’t often see are the anxious, unsure families of those who are unaccounted for, those service members who are prisoners of war (POW) or missing in action (MIA). Those families have agonizing questions, often without clear answers, about the status and condition of their loved ones.
While we may not be able to answer all their questions, we can show these families that we care about those who are POW/MIA. One of the ways that we do this is through annual remembrances. We take time on the third Friday of September each year to recognize those who may be gone, but are in no way forgotten. A grateful nation and their family members recognize these service members through POW/MIA Day ceremonies around the world.
This year the Department of Defense recognizes the 50th anniversary of the Vietnam War. Fittingly, the guided-missile destroyers USS Stockdale (DDG 106) and USS William P. Lawrence (DDG 110), both named in honor of POWs who served with exemplary courage and honor during their captivity in North Vietnam, hosted a POW/MIA Day ceremony at Naval Base San Diego today.
The guest speaker was retired U.S. Navy Cmdr. Everett Alvarez, Jr., former POW and recipient of multiple awards including the Silver Star, two Legions of Merit, two Bronze Stars, the Distinguished Flying Cross and two Purple Hearts. Alvarez was the first U.S. pilot to be downed and detained during the Vietnam War and spent more than eight years in captivity; making him the
second longest-held American POW, after U.S. Army Col. Floyd James Thompson.
Alvarez spoke to the audience, which consisted of more than 20 former POWs and their families, senior waterfront leadership, and Sailors from the Stockdale and Lawrence, aboutt his POW experience and how it was great leadership from people like fellow POWs Vice Adm. William P. Lawrence, then a commander, and Vice Adm. James B. Stockdale, also then a commander, who helped keep the will to live alive amongst fellow captives. Lawrence and Stockdale helped create and apply POW guidelines for maintaining a pattern of resistance – one that strengthened their resolve to resist their captors’ demands, no matter how much torture or abuse they endured.
“[Our heroes] were ordinary guys, such as yourselves, who understood that the Vietnamese could force them to submit to their commands through torture, but it did not give us the excuse of not giving resistance,” said Alvarez. “We had to try [to resist] by making them hurt us, because we learned soon enough that compliance that is extracted by brute force is in no way as damaging to the human spirit, as that by giving in to mere threats.”
Alvarez went on to say, “Our heroes were these fellows here; ordinary guys who made the prison guards torture them for submission one day and then come back and make them start all over again, the next time and again the next. And this went on for years.”
Alvarez explained, “The ancient Greeks had a saying that, ‘Endurance is the main part of courage,’ and we made it work that way. It was necessary for our survival.”
According to the Defense Prisoner of War/Missing Personnel Office, there are still more than 83,000 Americans missing from World War II, the Korean War, the Cold War, the Vietnam War, and the 1991 Gulf War combined. So even when wars end and some POWs are repatriated, not everyone comes home. Thankfully, there are hundreds of Defense Department employees working in organizations around the world in an ongoing effort to find and bring home those missing heroes.
The ceremony ended with a fly-over by two Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron Eight (HSC-8) as a way to pay tribute to all those who are gone but not forgotten.