Lightless Holiday Tree Honors Missing Servicemen
By Rudi Williams
American Forces Press Service
ARLINGTON, Va., Dec. 5, 2003 Peggy Marish-Boos had been assigned here to the Defense POW/Missing Personnel Office for two years when she finally asked, "Why don't we ever have a Christmas or holiday tree?"
Peggy Marish-Boos, creator of the "POW/MIA Holiday Tree," holds a picture of Army Cpl. Samuel C. "Sam Jr." Harris was lost during the Korean War on Nov. 27, 1950. Only 14 years at the time, Harris is shown holding his younger sister, Barbara Ann Harris, then 2. Photo by Rudi Williams.
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
"Somebody said the government doesn't provide funds for such frivolous things," said Marish-Boos, who back then in 1998 was an Army master sergeant intelligence analyst. So she bought a tree with her own money. "A couple of people found out that I'd spent $100 of my own money," she noted, "so they pitched in."
But a traditionally decorated Christmas tree with colorful lights and glittering ornaments isn't what Marish-Boos had in mind. Her idea was to have an ornament-free, lightless tree decorated with nearly 2,000 3-by-5 cards featuring the name, rank and date the serviceman became missing in action. Each card was attached with a ribbon denoting the war from which the service member was missing.
"Red, white and blue yarn represents MIAs from Vietnam War, Korean War and the Cold War, respectively," Marish-Boos explained.
This year, she added a special touch -- photographs of some of the missing servicemen. Debbie Landon, who works in the family section of the DPMO communications directorate, helped decorate.
While attending the National League of Families annual meeting in 1999, Marish-Boos told the forum about the recognition tree. She asked them to send her a photograph of their missing serviceman, which she would attach to the tree.
So far, only about 10 families have sent pictures. But Marish-Boos said that's a start, and she hopes to have more photographs for next year's tree. She puts the pictures in a plastic keychain and hangs them on the tree with the name, rank and date the serviceman became missing.
"This gives us a face to put with the name," she noted. "Some are pictures of the guy in uniform and some are of the guys when they were younger, taking care of their brothers or sisters on the farm. It's quite touching."
A sign on the tree reads: "The holiday season is a time for us all to reflect. The Defense POW/Missing Personnel Office regards 'Keeping the Promise' as our solemn duty. It reflects the spirit and sense of commitment with which we conduct our daily mission to return our nation's warriors to their families. The tree reminds us that there are so many yet to come home."
"After the first of the year, I take the tree down and store it for the next year," she noted. "The day after Thanksgiving, I set it up using the same cards the kids wrote."
Names of the missing from Vietnam were written in 1998 on the cards by students from Londontown Elementary School in Centreville, Va., and Fort Belvoir (Va.) Elementary School, Marish-Boos noted. "The kids decorated with glitter, bingo blotters and personalized the cards with their own handwriting," she said. "Me and a couple of folks in the office wrote the names from Korean War and Cold War" missing."
Since there are more than 88,000 servicemen classified by DoD as missing in action, it's impossible for her to put all of their names on the holiday tree. Defense records show that more than 78,000 servicemen are still missing from World War II, 8,100 from the Korean War, more than 1,800 from the Vietnam War, 123 from the Cold War and three from Operation Desert Storm.
"The idea was to remind those of us who work here why we do what we do," said Marish-Boos, now a DoD civilian employee in the DPMO Public Affairs Office. "Even though we've made great accomplishments, there are so many more missing servicemen we have yet to return home.
"So the tree is our reminder a way to reflect on the missing," she said. "Our office is the head honcho for the DoD POW/MIA issue, so it makes sense that that's the kind of tree we would have no lights, no fancy ornaments, just names of the guys who haven't come home yet."
Marish-Boos said everybody falls in love with the tree when they realize its purpose. "Some visitors said they want to do the same thing at their American Legion or Veterans of Foreign Wars post," she said. "I know American Legion Post 101 in Pharr, Texas, has a tree with the names of the missing in action from Texas."