When I was growing up, I didn’t think much of the POW/MIA flag.
Much like the peeling “SUPPORT OUR TROOPS” bumper sticker adorned on the suburban SUV driven by someone who can’t find Fallujah on a map or the mud-stained plastic American flag in a downtown gutter on July 5th, I always considered the flag to be just another cliche piece of symbolism found in motorcycle garages and dive bars. Essentially, it was just another misappropriated icon of American sacrifice and tragedy, pushed forward to somehow absolve a nation of sending their sons to fight, die, suffer and -sometimes- disappear.
I had read all the stories. Hell, I grew up surrounded not only by written military history, but living history. Being raised around Fort Campbell, Kentucky, you tend to be surrounded by veterans of current and past conflicts. Less than a stone’s throw from an American Legion post, I would regularly go listen to old veterans tell stories of the struggles they encountered in their respective conflicts. From World War II to Desert Storm (remember, I was a child of the 90’s), I heard tales of great loss, courage, sacrifice and yes, capture.
One such man was known to me only as “Mr.Tim.”
A helicopter pilot during Vietnam, Tim told me he had been shot down while trying to clear an LZ for a quick-insert when a reconnaissance team found themselves surrounded in an area they weren’t even supposed to be in. When his bird went down, Tim’s gunner was killed. Attempting to get the body of his comrade, he was captured.
During his capture, he told me the fear of what might happen to him was the worst. Having heard stories of what the Viet Cong did to downed pilots for their own amusement (the cutting off of genitals stuck out the most to him, and resonated with me as well), he said the uncertainty combined with the helplessness of his situation was a greater Hell than he could ever wish upon a person
He never really told me what happened to him. He really didn’t have to. As a kid, I was likely too young to understand it, even if I read all about it in the stacks of military history books I owned.
When my family moved to the United Kingdom and China, I spoke to veterans from other nations. British “Tommies” who were captured alongside American bomber pilots. Chinese veterans of the Korean War who would capture American troops (or kill those who didn’t surrender). The stories became more real, yet still felt far away.
When adulthood struck and my time to enter my generation’s war had come, things suddenly felt very real. As a young, pimple-faced infantryman (who wasn’t always the most stellar example of what a soldier should be like), I found myself conducting patrols through urban terrain in Baghdad in the dead of night, much more susceptible to the threat of being kidnapped or captured than most of us would like to admit.
It could have happened at any time- and it had happened to others in the years prior. A soldier strays away from his unit to investigate a noise, a Marine falls asleep on watch, and a National Guardsman’s small convoy gets lost in an ambush. Living in a decrepit factory with little gaps littered through the walls and gates, getting captured could have happened, especially given my constant habit of wandering off to explore or trying to find some quiet time away from everyone. One night, I took a sedative and ended up sleepwalking, waking up outside and completely unaware of my surroundings.
I didn’t think of it much then, but I certainly do now.
In retrospect, I had to try and figure out why exactly I wasn’t afraid of being captured. Why were all of us so nonchalant about being surrounded by a city full of people who hated us? Why was the thought of capture so real, yet not crippling?
After mulling it over to the point of a headache, I closed my eyes. It was only then that my imagination and memories showed me the answer.
There was a man to my left, there was a man to my right and there was a man to my front.
Even in the dead of night with a limited field of view from our night vision, there was always someone next to you. Every now and then, you’d bump into them. You didn’t always like them and they certainly didn’t always see eye-to-eye with you, but they were there- and they knew that you were there, too.
The minute you weren’t there, however, you knew that they would tear the city apart looking for you. If you were wounded on another street, they would throw everyone they had in an effort to come get you, even if it meant that some of them would die or end up in the same boat you were. They would make every call, request, plea or threat to unleash the full might of the US military in an effort to recover you. No matter how physically isolated you found yourself, you would never be forgotten nor left alone. Even if you died at the hands of the enemy who seized you, they would still have done everything in their power to get you back- even if it meant just ensuring you would be buried on home soil.
It’s the same reason old men still go back to old battlefields in faraway lands looking for remains, the same reason people originally wore the metal bracelets and the same reason some homes still have a sun-faded blue star in their window.
As I pondered on that mental image, it all became very clear to me- the origins and sentiments of the POW/MIA ideology were a far more powerful force than the flag would ever be. From the Stars and Stripes to the POW/MIA flag, those pieces of cloths were little more than symbols. But the idea behind them, the unconditional love associated with those symbols by those who had suffered, lost and -at times- died for the ideology the symbol was devised to represent, that was the ultimate and unquantifiable act that such symbols can only attempt to represent.
As a young man, the black flag didn’t mean much to me. As someone who grew up, I realize that, in settings where the display of such a symbol was sincere and for those who felt the same as I now feel, there was nothing “cheap” about that sentiment at all.
From the bottom of my heart, I sincerely wish all of you a safe National POW/MIA Recognition Day and ask that we pause to ensure that no one is ever forgotten.
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