It’s safe to say that most Americans, even most service members, do not know a former prisoner of war or anyone missing in action, yet we continue to conduct this ceremony literally thousands of times annually all over the world. It reminds us that as a nation we have a very long memory and that our POW and MIA comrades-in-arms are truly not forgotten. This ceremony has become such a fixture during military gatherings that it’s as probable as the presentation of colors and the playing of the national anthem.
But the point here is not to rehash the POW/MIA ceremony for those familiar with it. The point is to reflect on its meaning to those who may never witness it or may not even know it takes place, and to ponder the potential impact it may have on those currently serving.
There are a few versions of this reading, but in every case the words remind us, as we begin one celebration or another, that there are many who are unable to join the festivities. It reminds us that families still suffer because of a missing service member. Many of those families have no other connection to the military and may never attend an event where the POW/MIA reading takes place. They see the POW/MIA flag flying across our nation and notice patriotic Americans wearing POW/MIA bracelets, but do they know that we truly remember and that we remind ourselves regularly of their anguish?
Considering those families, how consoling is this ceremony for those aware of it? How comforting would it be for those who aren’t? Just try to imagine what it would mean if a POW or MIA returned today and discovered that not only have we not forgotten but that we actively reinforce the memory.
Think what it might mean to a service member should he fall into the hands of the enemy or become detached from his unit. The Code of Conduct supports a POW, but those who’ve witnessed the POW/MIA remembrance reading have something else to hold onto. They know that, while struggling in whatever situation they find themselves and no matter how uncertain their future, they will never be forgotten.
Hopefully no American ever again needs to think about this ceremony under such circumstances, but should they have to, let them find comfort in the knowledge that they will be remembered.
We cannot fathom a POW’s treatment or the fears of their family. We cannot understand the suffering of those waiting for the return of the missing. The best we can do is listen closely and strive to understand the symbolism, each stanza followed by the word “remember,” our one-word obligation.
Among those symbols are a table set for one marking the frailty of a lone prisoner. A white tablecloth representing the purity of their motives. A single rose signifying their family and loved ones. Remember!
We vainly long for the day when there are no more POWs or MIAs and we can stop observing this ceremony. Sadly, that day will never come, so we are left—individually and collectively—to uphold the solemn obligation of ensuring that their sacrifices never fade from our national memory. As long as even one American service member remains unaccounted for, we must continue this modest yet most meaningful ceremony.
It makes one proud to be an American knowing the obligation will be fulfilled and that they will never be forgotten.
A small table set for one. Remember!