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Notes from the Boonies
By Paul Wisovaty
I belong to a small Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) post in a town of 4,000 people. We have about half a dozen active members, very little money, and we meet in a small room donated by a local businessman. But we do some nice things in the community: provide color guards at veterans' funerals, give speeches at the high school, march in parades, raise money for relief for needy veterans and widows, things like that. I guess I'm saying that while we don't or can't afford to do a lot, the things that we do are nice. People seem to appreciate that.
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But there is one thing we do, at every meeting, that really bothers me. We - like every other VFW and American Legion post in the country - observe a moment of silence and a prayer for "those missing in action and those held as prisoners of war." I guess that one way to put it is that, if I had just gotten here from Mars and was told what I just said, I would (1) be incredibly anguished that there are still American men and women wasting away in the Hanoi Hilton, and (2) wonder why the most powerful government on the planet can't find a way to bring them home. I'd be writing letters every day to my Congressman. Just how can this happen? I would wonder.
I'm going to quote from an excellent book which I just finished, by George Herring, called "America's Longest War." Mr. Herring is of course much more knowledgeable than I about Vietnam, and probably even more incensed about what I have just said. For openers, he notes that, "While normalization (of relations between the United States and Vietnam) languished in the 1980's, the POW/MIA issue took on the power and mystique of a religion." I'll say. This contained an assumption "that any of the missing might still be prisoners...Between 1975 and 1993, various congressional and executive groups studied the issue intensively, and produced not a shred of evidence that a single American was being held captive in Vietnam." But none of that mattered to private groups that were not at all impressed by that intensive study. "The potent National League of Families of American Prisoners and Missing in Southeast Asia created, before the end of the war, a stark black and white POW/MIA flag with the inscription 'You Are Not Forgotten,' which in time flew above the White House." Our VFW post has one too, of course. Ok, one last quote: "Sensationalist films such as "Rambo: First Blood, Part 2" and "Missing in Action" boosted popular acceptance of the myth."
I understand that I am not telling our readers anything which they don't already know. I also realize that this reads like a history lesson, and if you wanted a history lesson you'd buy a history book. But this is about a lot more than history. It's about something happening NOW. The Courthouse in which I worked for 35 years flies a POW/MIA flag every day. City Hall in Tuscola, Illinois does the same, and my guess is that the same may be said for just about every Courthouse and City Hall in America. When I drive around town smoking a bowl (Prince Albert, Ok?), pass more than a few residential homes flying that flag. Ok, so what harm does this cause?
This is purely a guess, but let me throw it out. If I'm a widow, child or grandchild of a Vietnam MIA, and I am constantly exposed to - if nothing else, the flags - might I just wonder about that? Might I wonder if maybe my husband (or wife), parent or grandparent might still be waiting for Sly Stallone to go back there and rescue him? I don't know. And if that scenario isn't real, then why all those flags? Why all those moments of silence and prayers at VFW and Legion meetings for those listed as "missing in action or prisoners of war?" Why?
I recently received an insert in a veterans' magazine, offering - for "a limited time only"- a very physically impressive "You Are Not Forgotten" POW/MIA ring, for a modest $99. The ring includes several "appropriate" quotes, but the one that caught my eye was this one, "A portion of the proceeds from each sale will be donated to help the families of POW's and those missing in action." Ok, so the patriotic folks offering this item not only know that there continue to be Americans held as prisoners of war... they know who they are! If only the CIA had intelligence that good.
In case you're wondering, I did bring this up once at a VFW meeting. I explained it pretty much as I set it forth here, and when I got done no one said a word. They just looked at me as if I'd, you know, hung up a photo of Jane Fonda in the window.
Paul Wisovaty is a member of VVAW. He lives in Tuscola, Illinois. He was in Vietnam with the US Army 9th Division in 1968.