By Donna Miles
WASHINGTON, Sept. 15, 2006 – Military and defense leaders, former prisoners of war and families of missing servicemembers gathered here today to commemorate National POW/MIA Recognition Day and to reaffirm their commitment to ensuring a full accounting of those missing in action. Marine General Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, called today's observance an opportunity to honor the more than 30,000 living former prisoners of war in the United States and those still missing.
"For those of us in uniform, they are quite simply our heroes, because they have been called upon to sacrifice for this country in a way that very few have ever been called upon," Pace said during a ceremony on the Pentagon's parade field. "And they have performed their duties in a way that each of us who has the privilege of serving today can only hope that we would perform ours if put in the same circumstance."
Today's troops take courage from your example, Pace told the former POWs, as a sea of flags carried by a joint color guard waved behind him. "You have given to us a legacy that we want to cherish and take forward," he said. "And we certainly rededicate ourselves today to try to serve this country as well as each of you has."
Pace also honored families of servicemembers still missing and vowed to press forward to ensure their loved ones are accounted for. "There is no more sacred duty for the county than to account for and to repatriate those who are missing," he said.
The families of the missing service the country every day "in a way that we can't even imagine," the chairman said. He expressed hope that knowing the nation is pausing today to rededicate itself to accounting for their loved ones helps ease their pain.
"It is my honor, for all of us in uniform to rededicate to you today our service to our country in a way to emulate and take forward what your loved ones have already done," he said.
Deputy Secretary Gordon England echoed Pace's sentiment, thanking the former POWs for their sacrifice and reaffirming the national commitment to accounting for its missing troops. "America does not forget her heroes," he said.
The deputy secretary repeated President Bush's pledge that the country "must not rest until we have accounted for every soldier, sailor, airmen, Coast Guardsman and Marine."
U.S. Rep. Rob Simmons of Connecticut, a member of the Armed Services Committee, Vietnam veteran and champion of POW/MIA issues, told the gathering it's "part of our national character that we do not abandon those who have been lost in defense of America."
"Although they have been lost for a time, they have not been forgotten, and they will never be forgotten," Simmons said. "And we will find them and bring them home. ... We will not rest until they have all been accounted for and returned to the nation and to the families for whom they sacrificed."
As Simmons concluded his remarks, four UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters flew overhead in formation, flying off toward nearby Arlington National Cemetery.
Former POWs at the ceremony said they felt honored to represent others who could not attend and to hear their leaders reaffirm their commitment to bring all missing servicemembers home.
Retired Air Force Chief Master Sgt. William A. Tippins, 81, a prisoner of war in Germany from 1942 to 1944, came to the ceremony in his black World War II-era uniform. "I always come," Tippins said. "I feel I owe it to my buddies."
Former World War II POW Robert J. VanHouten, a soldier held for four months in Germany in 1945, called it important to remember what he and his fellow POWs endured and to commit to those still missing.
Former Army Cpl. Bill Stevens, a POW for 31 months during the Korean War, said he felt moved by today's ceremony and the commitment expressed to account for all MIAs. "I don't think we can ever forget," he said. "It's important to bring them back, especially for their families."
Ted Shpak, who served in the Army in Vietnam, was among members of Rolling Thunder, an organization committed to POW/MIA issues, who attended today's ceremony. "We're just not supposed to leave people behind," he said. "Accountability is very important -- especially now, when a war is going on."