We remember

  • Published
  • By Col. Michael Burke
  • 21st Medical Group commander
Last week I had the privilege of officiating two of our 21st Space Wing POW/MIA Remembrance Week ceremonies.

It was a great honor to solemnize the week's events with a retreat formation which preceded our Team Pete ceremonial 24-hour running of the POW/MIA flag, and then close the week with a wreath-laying observance in recognition of those American patriots who sacrificed so greatly for our nation and our way of life.

POW/MIA recognition days are hosted across our nation, on military installations, on ships at sea, across the areas of responsibility, and at state capitols, schools and veteran's facilities. Traditionally this special day is observed on the third Friday in September every year.

In the distinctive Knight fashion I'm growing accustomed to -- we, the 21st SW -- offered solemn tribute with a remembrance week to honor the unthinkable hardships and sacrifice our POW/MIAs and their families endured.

This observance is one of just six days throughout the year that Congress mandates the flying of the National League of Families' POW/MIA flag. In addition to National POW/MIA Recognition Day, the flag is flown on Armed Forces Day, Memorial Day, Flag Day, Independence Day and Veterans Day on military installations, national cemeteries, U.S. post offices, and other federal and Department of Defense locations. This year, the POW/MIA flag hit a milestone -- it has now symbolized our POW/MIAs for 40 years. Here's some history on the flag.

In 1971, Mrs. Michael Hoff, the wife of an MIA and member of the National League of POW/MIA Families, commissioned the design of the POW/MIA flag as a symbol to recognize our POW/MIAs. In 1982, the flag was flown over the White House making it the only flag besides "Old Glory" to have been displayed in this great place of honor. Since that day, the POW/MIA flag has flown over the White House on every National POW/MIA Recognition Day. Further, the POW/MIA flag that was flown over the White House in 1988 was installed in the U.S. Capitol Rotunda as another stark reminder of the plight endured by our POW/MIAs.

On Sept. 15, we conducted a morning retreat ceremony to lower our POW/MIA flag which had been hoisted earlier in the week. The flag was then run for 24 hours around our installation by hundreds of members from Team Pete. The run finished at the Peterson Chapel on Friday morning just minutes before weather cleared revealing Pikes Peak with its first snow cap; a beautiful and fitting way to conclude a week of remembrance and recognize those who gave so much.

We were honored to have three World War II POWs join us that morning, retired Lt. Col. William Sheaves, retired Master Sgt. Edwin Beck and retired Tech. Sgt. Charles Blaney. All were held captive in Germany -- Sheaves for 18 months, Beck for six months and Blaney for three months. Their stories were insightful, riveting and chilling. I'll never forget what they shared with us that morning. Clearly, none of which was easy for them -- most notably, the memories of those whom they never saw again.

Our Airman's Creed affirms that we are "...faithful to a Proud Heritage, a Tradition of Honor, and a Legacy of Valor." The difficulties our POW/MIAs and their families endured truly cements these words into our creed and our bloodline. When reciting the Airman's Creed, please take this to heart -- as I will, now more than ever, having spent time with the above three servicemen and their families.

I'd like to leave you with one last account of a Vietnam War POW by the name of Capt. Lance P. Sijan. Many recognize the name 'Sijan' as the namesake of the Sijan Leadership Award -- here's the story of Sijan; it's easy to see why his courage, honor and valor make receipt of the award such a coveted honor.

While on a flight over North Vietnam, Sijan ejected from his disabled aircraft and successfully evaded capture for more than six weeks. During this time, he was seriously injured and suffered from shock and extreme weight loss due to lack of food. After being captured by North Vietnamese soldiers, Sijan was taken to a holding point for subsequent transfer to a prisoner of war camp. In his emaciated and crippled condition, he overpowered one of his guards and crawled into the jungle, only to be recaptured after several hours. He was then transferred to another prison camp where he was kept in solitary confinement and interrogated at length. During interrogation, he was severely tortured; however, he did not divulge any information to his captors. Sijan lapsed into delirium and was placed in the care of another prisoner. During his intermittent periods of consciousness until his death, he never complained of his physical condition and, on several occasions, spoke of future escape attempts. Sijan's extraordinary heroism and intrepidity above and beyond the call of duty at the cost of his life are in keeping with the highest traditions of the U.S. Air Force.

The above is from the Medal of Honor citation awarded posthumously to Sijan, bestowed for the ultimate sacrifice for our nation. His heroic story represents the extraordinary hardships endured by thousands of POWs who have served our nation. Some made it home, yet, nearly 90,000 remain MIA. To those who made it home: We Remember. To those who have not returned: You Are Not Forgotten.