Ladies, gentlemen, veterans, and distinguished guests. I am always concerned I will overlook someone deserving recognition, forgive me if I have done so today. Most certainly, all here deserve recognition.
Today, we pause to honor the service and sacrifice of American veterans whose enduring faith in country, family and comrades in arms gave them a rare courage that continues to inspire our nation.
Winston Churchill, the great World War Two leader of the English people, knew a thing or two about courage. He personified the courage of his people as they defended their beleaguered island during the early years of the war. He valued courage above all else:
“Courage is the first of human qualities,” he said, “because it is the quality which guarantees all others.”
It is courage that moves our veterans to serve in harm’s way for a cause much greater than their individual wants and fears. It is courage that guides them on the field of battle. It is courage that enables them to endure the mistreatment and isolation of incarceration by the enemy and it is courage that keeps their families strong and supportive in their absence, no matter how long.
It is that special courage we honor today on POW/MIA Recognition Day.
Today, we renew our pledge to former POWs, MIAs and their families. Our nation has pledged not to rest until we can give a full accounting of every American missing in action. Today, we remember them in our thoughts and prayers, wherever they are or wherever they have fallen.
President Ronald Reagan committed our nation to this mission when he spoke to the families of those missing in action in 1985.He declared, “We write no last chapters. We close no books. We put away no final memories.”
Just last month, President George W. Bush reiterated that commitment with these words: “My administration will also continue to work to locate the men and women in uniform whose fate is still undetermined: our prisoners of war and personnel missing in action. We will not forget these brave Americans. We must not rest until we’ve accounted for every soldier, sailor, airman, Coast Guardsman and Marine. And we will always honor their courage.”
The brave men and women who serve today – whether in Afghanistan, Iraq or in other theaters of the war on terrorism—can do so with a full confidence that if they are captured, become missing or fall in battle, this nation will spare no effort to bring them home. However long it takes, whatever it takes, whatever the cost.
And as we seek the fates of those missing in action, we must not forget our former prisoners of war.
It was April 9, 1942 -- the first day of the American surrender on Bataan, in the Philippines. Already, Staff Sergeant Al Bland sensed the depravity and brutality he would experience over the next three and a half years. The Americans were standing tall at noon, as ordered by their commanders. Bland and the other members of his Army Air Force unit stood in the formation, awaiting the arrival of their Japanese captors.
Six hours later, the Japanese arrived. An officer drove up in his staff car and began to look over the defeated Americans. In the background, a truck precariously navigated the road to the assembly point. As the truck came closer, Bland heard the chug of the engine, then -- suddenly -- the crack of colliding vehicles. The truck had stopped behind the Japanese staff car, but not soon enough.
Without mercy, the officer berated the driver, a Japanese soldier. Then, while Bland and the other Americans watched in horror, the officer pulled out his pistol and shot the soldier dead.
At that moment, Bland tells us, he began to realize just how inhumane one human being could be to another. Now, his gut feeling of dread had been born out by terrifying, tangible reality. But the terror was about to get worse.
Within the next couple of hours, Bland witnessed six other murders. Americans were either beheaded or shot for no other reason than having Japanese items in their possession. If a Japanese soldier wanted a ring from an American, he would try to force it off. If it didn't come off easily, the soldier would simply cut off the troublesome finger. Some fingers were cut from corpses; some were cut from live Americans.
Then, in an endless fight against fatigue and thirst, the captive Americans walked the infamous Death March of Bataan. On they walked, day after torturous day. To survive, Bland sprinted to nearby wells to fill his canteen. He was lucky. Many other Americans were shot or bayoneted for doing the same.
If a prisoner passed out, the guards gave one kick to revive him. If that failed, they shot him. Bland and another soldier carried an officer for four days until they arrived at one of the half dozen camps they would occupy until the war's end. Yet through it all, Bland says, the most miserable day was the first, when the realization sank in that he had lost his freedom. "In America, people take freedom for granted," he says. "But when you lose your freedom, you've got nothing."
Another former prisoner of war had similar sentiments, Captain Steve Long says, “Freedom begins with a choice. That is a choice to live free of shackles of any nature, real or imagined. Life is precious and it is each person’s responsibility to attain self-fulfillment.”
Unfortunately, Steve Long didn’t have that choice. While flying a mission over Laos in February 1969 Captain Long awoke falling towards earth after being ejected from his plane. Unable to deploy his parachute in time, he broke his femur upon
impact. Once captured he began what he calls his “four years of inactive type service” in North Vietnam. The North Vietnamese began by trying him before a kangaroo court. After being convicted of air piracy, he was sentenced “to live forever in a cave.” For five months, forever passed as he sat alone in the dark bowels of a cave with a cast on his leg. Tom Risch was assigned to the Captain Long’s home base. He and his fellow soldiers were tasked with the difficult duty of
rescuing and recovering those shot down. They were successful in finding and rescuing Captain Long’s crewmember, but were deeply troubled when they were unsuccessful in rescuing Captain Long. And despite their best hopes for positive news, Risch and many others including Captain Long’s wife began to lose hope.
Without giving those Marines in the audience too many strokes of their ego, I think we should reference their motto, “Semper Fidelis” – Always Faithful. It is not conveyed lightly among Marines and remains a very part of their being. More than most Americans, the families of POWs and MIAs from wars past know firsthand the meaning and sanctity of Semper Fidelis. They know of tireless work, faded dreams and frustration, and they know of the meaning of small victories . . . and most distinctly, about sacrifice. One such hero is with us today. Ms. Doreen Portch is the daughter of Air Force Sergeant Ken Holland. Declared missing in action in 1968, she maintains the hope and dream to finally close the most trying chapter of her life. She shows us the way and maintains the spirit and commitment of Semper Fidelis.
But remaining optimistic and faithful is a difficult challenge for the family and others left behind. Because of the nature of our operations in Laos, Captain Long’s capture was not officially recognized by the Air Force. He was never listed as a prisoner of war. The North Vietnamese knew this and transferred him to eight different camps in North Vietnam. It was only in the final months of the war where he was joined at the Hanoi Hilton with other American prisoners who learned of his fate.
It was these fellow prisoners who told U.S. authorities of his imprisonment, and only after threatening to bomb North Vietnam was Captain Long finally released. One of the last American soldiers to be returned after 49 months of captivity. Forty-nine months. Just imagine what you would have missed in the last forty-nine months. The Boston Red Socks finally winning the World Series. The election of President Bush and the death of President Reagan. The invasion of Iraq. The Tsunami and Hurricane Katrina.
Now recall what has happened to you personally in the past forty nine months. The birth of a child and marriage of a brother. Loss of your mother or . . . . It seems like a lifetime, but in the blink of an eye, they ripped it from a hero. I’ll tell you Captain Long returned to find a letter from his wife in his military file. She had divorced him. “She was young,” he said, “She pressed on with her life.”
Whether the uncertainty lasted for thirty days, 49 months, or 30 years, the former POWs, their families and friends have had to live life with a silent badge of courage few know. Over 200 live in Nevada with this silent mark and almost 30,000 former POWs are alive today. And today, we can’t forget those 10 Nevadans who remain missing in Southeast Asia; we must not forget the 88,000 Americans missing from World War II, the Korean War, Vietnam, and the Cold War. Alive or dead, at home or away they must not be forgotten.
Al Bland returned to Maryland forever carrying the nightmares and story of his time in Bataan. Tom Risch, the soldier tasked to recover those missing in action came home to serve the veterans of Ohio as a service officer. He would not learn Captain Steve Long returned, served a full career in the Air Force and today is finishing serving six years as Deputy Director of the Nevada Office of Veteran Services.
But it was god’s grace that put Tom Risch in a banquet with Captain Steve Long last May. Once Captain Long was introduced and his story was told, Tom realized the reality of the dream, the fulfillment of the wish that some day he would know the ultimate fate of Captain Steve Long. The tears, hugs, and soul searching grasp between the two men could barely hide the dreams, nightmares and thoughts that each held behind their aged faces.
We can't make him forget his time. And we can't relieve him of his troubled sleep. But we can keep them in our thoughts and prayers. They should never have to seal the pain in their heart or secretly cry. In his book, “Character is Destiny,” Senator John McCain, one of our most recognized former POWs, links the courage and resolve of the POW in a manner each of us should adopt:
I served with men of extraordinary character, honorable men, strong, principled, wise, compassionate, and loving men. For several years we were tortured by our captors. Some of us were beaten terribly, and worse. Some were killed. Sometimes we were tortured for information that could be used to help our enemy fight the war, and sometimes for information they could use against other prisoners. Most often, they tortured us to compel us to make statements criticizing our country and the cause we had been asked to serve. Many times, they would briefly suspend the torture and try to persuade us to make the statement by promising that no one would hear what we said or know we had sacrificed our integrity.
Just say it, and we will spare you any more pain they promised, and no one, no one will know. But the men I had the honor of serving with always had the same response. I will know. I will know. Today, let us leave here with that thought. I will know the sacrifices made by those unwilling captives and missing countrymen who fought for freedom with a lion’s heart and felt the worst of war. I will know the pain suffered by the families and children of those who haven’t come home. Most importantly I will know we shall not rest until the last brave warrior is recovered and recognized for paying the ultimate price for our country and our freedoms. I will know. I will know.