National POW/MIA Recognition Day Set for Sept. 19
By K.L. Vantran
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Sept. 16, 2003 The remains of nine U.S. Navy crewmembers, missing in action from the Vietnam War, were laid to rest in Arlington National Cemetery in June.
That final action brought closure to their status 35 years after their plane's disappearance over Laos.
"If we send men and women into harm's way, we have an obligation to do everything in our power to account for them," Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Prisoner of War/Missing Personnel Affairs Jerry D. Jennings said here Sept. 15. "That means if they're POWs, to rescue and return them; if they've died in combat and are missing, to locate and return their remains with honor -- return them to their family and loved ones."
More than 600 U.S. specialists work every day around the world to locate and identify the more than 88,000 Americans still missing from World War II, the Korean War, the Cold War, the Vietnam War and the 1991 Gulf War. The remains of more than 700 Americans who were missing as a result of the Vietnam War have been identified.
Sept. 19 is National POW/MIA Recognition Day, a time that should be in the forefront of everyone's minds, said Jennings.
"It's the one day of the year when we honor those who fought and died or who are missing, those that may still be POWs, and those we have yet to recover from around the world (from) all wars since World War II," he added.
The work of Jennings' office, however, continues year-round. There are teams in North Korea, Russia, Vietnam, China, Papua New Guinea and Cambodia.
"Cambodia is extremely cooperative. We have a free hand to look anywhere in that country we want to for remains," said the former Marine who served as an intelligence officer with the CIA in Southeast Asia from 1965 to 1968. "We have people conducting recovery operations in North Korea. We don't take a high profile, but we're there."
Jennings said his office receives thousands of leads. "If someone thinks they've spotted an American in North Korea, Vietnam or Cambodia, we follow up until we can say, 'No, it was not an American,'" he said.
"We believe there is a possibility that POWs have survived in these wars (Korea and Vietnam) and could be held against their will," he added. "As long as we continue to get leads, we'll continue to follow up."
Jennings also is a commissioner on the U.S.-Russian Joint Commission on POW/MIAs, which seeks to clarify the fates of American and Russian service members from conflicts since World War II. Earlier this month, Jennings passed documents to the Russians that clarified the fates of 202 Soviet servicemen from the Korean War. American researchers working in Russian and American archives had located the information, according to a Department of Defense news release.
Every month, staff from the Defense POW/Missing Personnel Office set up shop in a major U.S. city. Families who have missing loved ones are invited for updates on what "their government is doing to work their cases," said Jennings.
Jennings said the people who work in his office are there because they want to be. "It's a mission of the heart," he added. "It's a mission where there's a lot of emotion involved. Few people could survive working this mission unless they really believed in it."
The 2003 POW/MIA Recognition Day poster reflects on the past as well as the present, noted Jennings at the unveiling of the poster June 26. The somber, black POW/MIA flag -- a national symbol -- is a firm reminder of those still missing and of their families who have waited decades for answers, Jennings said. The words "You are not forgotten" on the bottom of the flag remind us of their sacrifice for our freedom, he added.
The rippling red, white and blue banner, so clear and so proud through the smoke of battle, said Jennings, leads American warriors forward toward "freedom" for oppressed peoples, who know the word only because it means "America."
"Freedom" lies in the hearts of the people of the entire nation, he added. "It lies in the ideas so richly American, and it rests on the shoulders of those who we honor on this special day."