POWs, missing recognized at VA

At the front of a pavilion at the Van Zandt VA Medical Center, a lone table was set to honor those who had gone missing in action.

The table, round to represent the “everlasting concern” of the survivors, was adorned with a white tablecloth, honoring the purity of the MIA soldiers’ mission. A rose, representing the blood shed by the missing, sat in the center; the vase wrapped in a ribbon. Lemons, bitter like the fates of the MIA soldiers, rested on the bread plate, next to an inverted glass, symbolizing the fact the missing cannot partake in a meal.

“Let us all remember those who are missing from our midst,” said Charles Becker, associate director at the hospital, as an honor guard placed caps of the five military branches and one for civilians at the empty places.

The Missing Man Table is a traditional part of National POW/MIA Recognition Day, which was recognized Friday at the VA hospital. A crowd of about 250 veterans, family members and area residents attended the 30-minute ceremony.

Keynote speaker Dennis Butts, a Vietnam veteran with three Purple Hearts, said he was humbled to be the in the presence of a number of POWs.

“I wish people could understand the absolute courage you all displayed and never broke,” Butts said, pausing to hold back tears.

World War II prisoners of war, like those in attendance Friday, were part of what inspired Butts to join the Marines, he said.

His father served in the military during WWII and was shot down three times but always returned to “friendly forces,” which was not the case for many.

He said each morning when he wakes up, he apologizes to the men he was forced to leave behind while he was serving in Vietnam.

“To this day, it haunts and hurts me to know that while we were fighting our way back to the [demilitarized zone],” Butts said, “some of our guys were watching us leave without them.”

A number of local political leaders were also on hand for the ceremony. State Sen. John H. Eichelberger Jr., R-Blair, performed taps as the honor guard retired the colors.

Altoona Mayor Bill Schirf gave an official proclamation to recognize the day in the city.

“The uncertainty these families live with must touch the hearts of every American,” Schirf said. “Our city must not forget these fates and must keep seeking answers.”

Becker said America has not forgotten what the POWs endured or those who have gone missing.

“Yet even in their darkest hour, their courage and devotion to family and country stood them apart,” he said.