HORSHAM AIR GUARD STATION, Pa., March 4, 2016 —
A former Marine and current Air National Guardsman of the 111th Attack Wing's services flight here brings something different to the table.
Standing serenely amid the buoyant clatter and chatter saturating the jam-packed dining facility here, Air Force Senior Airman Alan Phe spoke in a low, solemn voice of his days in the Marine Corps and of a lost comrade. His gaze was vague, drifting to a small, innocuous table.
He had draped a white tablecloth over the table, and he had ensured its chair remained empty. He had placed a slice of lemon on the bread plate.
Phe had built the tabletop and the place setting. But he did not set it for himself. It represents him and others in uniform.
"We don't forget our own," said Phe about the dining facility table he had fashioned to honor the nation’s prisoners of war and service members missing in action. "In a way, having the POW/MIA table here, it's like we're having a meal with those that never made it back or those that are still out there," he said.
Since the end of the Vietnam War, setting a separate table in honor of prisoners of war or those missing in combat has become a widely practiced military tradition. They are commonly located in the dining areas of military installations, at ceremonies and at events.
Before Phe assembled the display here, Horsham Air Guard Station did not have one on the installation.
"Security forces came in one time, and they were looking for a setup for one of their members," Phe said. "And I really felt embarrassed that [we], as the dining facility, didn't have one." Realizing that an integral piece of military tradition was absent from his own unit's dining facility, Phe took the lead in amending the oversight.
But where to start?
For Phe, that would be during his time in the Marine Corps from 2000 until 2004.
"I spent four years in the active-duty Marine Corps, and I remember that there was always one of these tables in the chow hall," the services airman said. Using his military experience as the foundation, Phe began to decipher the correct configuration. Next, his research proceeded in a nearly universal manner.
"I looked online," he said.
Researching the Custom
Phe found that while documents are available that dictate protocol of POW/MIA ceremonies, there is no Defense Department standard for the table itself; it is not governed by any DoD or service-specific guidance. In some cases, Phe discovered, the table epitomizes personal aspects of military service in addition to its original design as a tribute to POW/MIAs.
So, as the POW/MIA table came together here, the project became more than implementing a piece of military custom for Phe. It became personal.
"Airman Phe is certainly one of the elite," said Air Force Staff Sgt. Terry Harris, shift leader of the 111th Services Squadron. "He brings a lot to the flight. He's the kind of person that gets things done, and he brought a lot to the dining facility by incorporating the POW/MIA table."
A sense of esprit de corps for his fellow Guardsmen emerged as Phe and his flight came together to research, uncover, gather and construct the table.
"I'm about my people -- my team," Phe said. "And I didn't put this all together alone; we did it as a team. These are my people, and I'll be there for them."
Phe, who enlisted in the Pennsylvania Air National Guard three years ago, said that this table is partly for those now serving by his side. But the table also became a tribute to one Marine who fell by his side in combat years ago.
"I had fallen members when I was overseas [in the Marine Corps]," he said. "And this [table] brings me closer to them. My Gunny passed away while we were in combat together. This table makes me feel like I'm saying, 'Look, we didn't forget about you. You'll always be in our hearts.'"
The Philadelphia native said he returned to the military after a nearly 12-year hiatus because he missed wearing the uniform, and that being clad in official military attire gave him his identity.
The same can be said for the POW/MIA table.
Without the accoutrements and arrangement, it's just a table. But with the proper regalia, it develops a nobler character.
Harris said the display is a testament to Phe's principles: respect, integrity and dedication.
Similarly, Harris said, he believes the POW/MIA table symbolizes the Horsham Air Guard Station Guardsmen's principles. Those values include reverence for members from all military branches and the fellow service members who never came home.
Phe agreed, and said the table represents even more.
"This table presents pride," he said. "Never forget who came before you or where you came from. This table is all of us."