News: Their sacrifice remembered: POW,MIA honored in Honolulu
Story by Cpl. Reece Lodder
NATIONAL MEMORIAL CEMETERY OF THE PACIFIC, Honolulu — Silence blankets the vast, hallowed grounds. At its entrance, the Stars and Stripes fly at half-mast, gently ruffling in the light morning wind. Today, unlike the day previous, a black and white flag flies below, honoring thousands who were prisoners of war and those who are still missing in action.
A short distance away, a collection of aging veterans mingles among those of today’s wars, the warm sun glinting off the colorful pins and ribbons adorning their hats. Even decades later, their eyes shine youthfully as they recount their battles and their service.
Veterans, active duty service members and their families were among the approximately 500 attendees at the National POW/MIA Recognition Day ceremony here, Sept. 21, 2012.
A band of sailors clad in white serenaded the visitors as they took their seats. A joint service color guard marched forward and the national and state anthems played. Hundreds bowed their heads silence and a chaplain offered a humble prayer. Behind them, a lone soldier stood watch over a row of vibrant memorial wreaths.
Standing before the attendees, retired Marine Col. Gene Castagnetti, the cemetery director, shared his perspective on the observance.
“In ceremonies across the nation today, we remember with profound gratitude our country’s former prisoners of war … they are among our most revered heroes,” said Castagnetti, a Silver Star recipient for valor during combat operations in Vietnam. “They served with dignity and honor under the worst of human conditions — starvation, isolation, torture and the ever-present threat of death. Yet even during their darkest hour, they demonstrated remarkable personal courage and unwavering devotion to family and country.”
The crowd later welcomed retired Army Col. William S. Reeder Jr., whose warm smile and infectious energy belied the hell he survived. Reeder’s plane was shot down during his second tour to Vietnam in 1972. Though he survived the crash, he was captured by communist North Vietnamese forces and spent nearly a year as a prisoner of war.
The graying pilot briefly spoke of a nightmare few of the listeners could understand but quickly changed his tone. He reminisced on his time spent living in Hawaii as a teenager and quietly expressed his thankfulness for the opportunity to participate in the observance.
“Growing up, I revered this Punchbowl … I held it in awe,” Reeder said. “To come up this drive, onto these grounds, humbled me as a young man. All of the men interred here were the heroes of my father’s generation. I never imagined that the twists and turns in my life would lead me to be here, participating in this ceremony, on this day. Spiritually and emotionally, this is an overwhelming experience.”
Reeder also praised the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command’s ongoing efforts to locate and identify 83,000 service members missing from conflicts since World War II. Since 2003, the unit has identified more than 740 Americans; nearly 1,830 have been identified since the effort began in the 1970s.
“Today was an opportunity for me to reflect on JPAC’s mission,” Reeder said. “I’m so grateful to our nation for their efforts. Nobody in the history of mankind has worked this hard to account for the men they’ve lost.”
After Reeder’s riveting words, a procession of Marines, sailors, soldiers and airmen assigned to JPAC joined veterans to place brightly colored ceremonial wreaths in front of the crowd. Aligned above them on a set of stairs, an Air Force honor guard’s three-volley rifle salute honored the fallen. A lone trumpeter filled the chilling silence with “Taps,” the national song of remembrance.
Though the sacrifices of those honored in the ceremony are stories of yesterday, Castagnetti implored the crowd to never forget what the POWs/MIA gave.
“This nation’s POWs and those who remain MIA are ordinary men who accomplished the extraordinary in personal courage, perseverance, resiliency and unity over self,” Castagnetti told the attendees. “I have stood in the presence of presidents, emperors, prime ministers and generals, and their achievements, sacrifice and service pale in comparison to the steadfast loyalty to each other and to our nation that our former POWs have demonstrated.”